How Do You Keep Pace With a 100,000 Percent Increase in Wireless Data Traffic? Software

March 02, 2015
By John Donovan

Imagine driving your car 60 miles per hour on the highway. A good clip, but sustainable. Your car was built for this. Now imagine stomping on the gas and accelerating to 60,000 miles per hour. Your car was, needless to say, not built for this.

Well, in the last eight years, data traffic on our wireless network has increased at just that rate, a staggering 100,000 percent, driven primarily by video. We’re asking a network model designed years ago for modest and predictable increases in voice traffic to adapt to a world of streaming videos, high-definition games, and photo-intensive social media.

We’ve been able to keep up with the increase by using more and more sophisticated, complex routers, switches and other gear. But this just isn’t feasible for much longer.  It’s too slow, too inefficient and too expensive.

At AT&T, we have found a better way. As I announced last year at Mobile World Congress and updated a few months ago, it’s a model developed in the IT world, where you emulate the functions of those complex pieces of hardware with software, and run that software on standard, off-the-shelf hardware. You can add capacity faster and push out upgrades at the speed of the Internet. While the technology enabling this transition is intricate, it’s a process we’ve all mastered in our personal lives. Think about how the apps on your smartphone – games, music players, video streaming services, fitness trackers – have replaced many of the separate physical devices we used to need.

That’s the model for our next-generation network, powered by technologies including software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV). By 2020, we plan to virtualize and control over 75 percent of our network using this new software-defined architecture to meet the growing demands of data and video-hungry users.

We expect this approach to work. We’ve proven it in our data centers. At the end of 2014, we had moved 400 of our IT apps - about 40 percent of our strategic IT apps - into the cloud. We’re migrating an app per day now. We have 400,000 processor cores running these cloud IT apps, and they’re operating 50 percent more efficiently than on dedicated hardware. We’re scheduled to switch over the rest of our strategic IT applications by mid-2017.

We’re taking those skills learned in the IT world to our software transformation of the wide area network (WAN), deploying our distributed AT&T Integrated Cloud into many of our 4,600 central offices.

We’ve already made impressive progress in four key areas related to our 2020 goal:

  • We launched Network on Demand, our first SDN-enabled network service, in 2014. This enables customers to increase or decrease their network bandwidth as needed in near-real time.
  • We’re working to virtualize our mobile packet core – virtualizing network functions that run our mobile network onto a common platform infrastructure. Traditionally, each mobile network function ran on its own dedicated hardware. Now, we’re moving to a common platform running on off-the-shelf hardware, where unique functions happen in software. We can add capacity and capability much faster while reducing complexity and cost. We’re starting with our Connected Car applications and our MVNO services this year.
  • We’re virtualizing our enterprise and consumer Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) architecture, including Voice over LTE (VoLTE), so it all runs on one network. We call it the Virtualized Universal Service Platform.
  • AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC) nodes are the physical sites where we’re running virtualized functions that are part of our next-generation network architecture. We have 29 nodes today that are targeted to migrate to AT&T’s AIC vision, with a plan to add at least 40 more this year. Out of 150 network functions that we want to virtualize and control with our target architecture, our plan is to transform 5 percent by the end of 2015. Once we have a proven methodology for that process, we plan to transform more of those network functions over the next few years to drive to 75 percent by 2020.

In short, we are becoming a software company.

We’ve begun a cultural shift within AT&T to embrace this new software-centric model. We have a dedicated organization of more than 2,000 people focused solely on building this software-centric architecture. And we’re hiring new talent as well as retraining our current employees, with our workers enrolling in nearly half a million “Emerging Technology Training” courses covering Agile Project Management, Cybersecurity, Network Transformation and more.

We’re also seeing a growing ecosystem of providers, startups and small companies as well as traditional telecom vendors. And we’re collaborating with open source groups such as OpenStack, ON.Lab, Open Daylight, OPNFV and others.

I’m thrilled with our progress to date, and look forward to sharing additional updates through the rest of this year as we move down the road. I also want to hear any comments you might have. Contact us at innovationblog@att.com.

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