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AT&T’s David Lu: 5G network must be software defined and controlled

  • 3 minute read
  • Published by Dawn Bushaus on 27 Sep 2019
  • Last modified 1 Oct 2019
During his keynote presentation at Digital Transformation North America, David Lu, Vice President, SDN Platform & Systems, AT&T Labs, explained why the future 5G network must be software defined and controlled, and how AT&T is transforming its network to meet these requirements.

On an average day, the AT&T Global Network carries more than 274.6 petabytes of data traffic. That’s 1,000 times more than the content of the United States Library of Congress, and it’s a 140% percent increase over 2015. Yet, revenue growth during that time period has been fairly flat, growing only incrementally. Lu notes that this is not just a problem for AT&T – it’s an issue all telcos are facing.

AT&T's David Lu

“If we as a company don’t change the way we operate in the future…we’re out of business,” Lu told a crowd of more than 300 people gathered here, where eight of the world’s top 10 communications service providers (CSPs) and their suppliers are meeting as part of TM Forum’s Digital Transformation and Action Week event. “There is no way we can run such a model and continue to pay the top dollars for the vendors to bring in additional equipment. We just cannot. So, that starts our transformation.”

Today AT&T operates a 3,900-node multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network, delivering services in 204 countries. It has deployed more than 1.2 million fiber miles globally, more than 1.4 million wavelength miles supporting 40Gbps and another 1.4 million supporting 100Gbps, and has announced plans to deliver 400Gbps.

AT&T’s push to adopt network functions virtualization (NFV), software-defined networking (SDN) and cloud computing is well underway. Lu explained that as part of the Domain 2.0 strategy, the company is building what it calls the AT&T Integrated Cloud (AIC), and that’s where the transformation journey begins, with a goal  of moving away from purpose-built and tested vendor-specific network appliances to a software-defined network that is intelligent, autonomous and automated.

AT&T’s control platform uses policy and orchestration. “The operation can change at any time based on policy,” Lu explained. “All the infrastructure is controlled by software in the cloud itself.”

End-to-end 5G

This  transformation is essential to delivering ultra-reliable and low-latency 5G services. Since 2007, data traveling over AT&T’s mobile network has grown at a staggering 470,000%, driven largely by digitization of all businesses from healthcare and aviation to banking. Lu gives the example of medical imaging, which used to be transferred using CDs but now is transmitted online.

“Computers are everywhere and have become the default user experience,” he says.

5G promises ultra reliability, better capacity and coverage, lower latency, and massive device connectivity but to deliver this, CSPs must engineer their networks end to end so that all infrastructure from the device to the network edge to the fronthaul and backhaul networks to the core and enterprise applications support the service.

“You have to look at 5G holistically,” Lu says. “You have to make all the infrastructure work seamlessly – forget about the network slicing for a moment…this is just to offer a decent 5G experience.”

Moving to the cloud

Lu also addressed AT&T’s recent announcement that it is partnering with Microsoft as part of a $2 billion, multiyear deal to collaborate on cloud, AI and 5G. Under the agreement, Microsoft will be AT&T’s preferred cloud provider for non-network applications.

“We expect to significantly reduce AT&T’s cost,” Lu says, adding that other benefits of adopting a public cloud strategy include quicker deployment, self-service operation, simplicity, standardization, all of which can help drive innovation.

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