AT&T’s John Donovan talks BIG GAME but doesn’t reveal Game Plan at ONS 2014

John Donovan wants to revamp AT&T’s network using SDN, but also its internal policies, methods and procedures. AT&T’s senior executive vice president of technology and network operations was strong on conviction, but short on details during his March 4th keynote speech at the Open Network Summit (ONS) in Santa Clara, CA.  

You can watch that keynote, along with opening remarks from ONS Chairman Guru Parulkar, PhD at:

AT&T is committed to shifting to a more agile networking strategy, which it’s calling User-Defined Network Cloud or Domain 2.0.  According to Donovan, there are four key principles that will guide AT&T’s network transformation: 

1. Open- APIs are the perfect tool

2. Simple- a more common network infrastructure

3. Scale-  evolve network to support high traffic growth

4. Secure- protect the Control Plane

“We intend to provide elastic network services, just like cloud provides elastic computing and storage services today,” Donovan said. “Customers will be able to self-provision networking services on the fly, as needed, just as they now do with compute services and storage from cloud service providers,” he added.  

Donovan shook up the audience (especially this author) when he said:

“We’re changing everything at AT&T:

  • How the network is built (presumably with much more software control)
  • The actual equipment and the software – leveraging open source principles and software
  • How AT&T will be partnering and purchasing from both startups and larger companies
  • AT&T’s operations and culture – changing their OSS model while pursuing network agility”


To that latter point, Donovan said that AT&T plans to retire more than 1,000 of its current OSS applications. In their place, the carrier hopes to handle operations such as billing and provisioning through parallel processes “as opposed to the inhibiting process that defines everything that we do,” Donovan said.  It was quite refreshing to hear an AT&T executive admit that the company is plagued by “inhibiting processes,” which often is the cause for botched service orders and delayed service deployments.

To reiterate the company’s conviction to Domain 2.0, the AT&T executive stated “there’s no army that can hold back an economic principle whose time has come. What I’m talking about is radically reshaping the entire wide-area network.”  To make this radical change, AT&T is changing everything about the company, including how the network is built, equipment and software, how the company buys, and its operations and culture.
AT&T’s network transition to SDN/NFV will be a big job, especially for a large telecom carrier with a huge legacy network in place for decades. “There is much to do before our vision is realized,” Donovan said.  AT&T executives see it as their responsibility to communicate the strategic change to employees and give them the capability to participate in the network revamp.   “The objective is to leave no person behind who wants to make the journey and has the desire and fortitude to get it done,” Donovan said.

Orchestration of many distributed controllers will be one of the most difficult steps in the SDN migration.  During the Q & A session, Donovan was asked whether any vendors have orchestration offerings that  AT&T’s goals and objectives. “We’ve had a lot of very interesting dialogue, but we have nothing ready to deploy,” he said.  “That is a massive software project. It will be a highly complex, multi-participant approach. We’re going to have to even write some of it ourselves,” he added.

“Our backbone today, we manage over 4 million routes, and that’s larger than you can get from any control plane, so we wrote our own. So, we’re not brand new to this game.”


Mr. Donovan identified hardware vendors Ericsson and Metaswitch as two established suppliers that are involved with AT&T’s Domain 2.0 project. He said that two smaller vendors -Tail-f Systems and Affirmed Networks – are working closely with AT&T on this major network transformation.  Donovan praised Tail-f for its network control software, which can manage network equipment from multiple vendors by interfacing with their existing control planes. He also praised Affirmed Networks for the technology it’s developing that virtualizes the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) in AT&Ts LTE wireless network.

AT&T is ready to do business with new vendors, even companies that are not traditional telco vendors, Donovan said. “We’re leaving the [procurement] process open,” he said. “We appreciate the benefits of collaboration, and we’re going to make sure we stay open to new ideas and maintain a competitive process. So if a company comes along with an innovation, they’ll have a chance to pursue it with us.”


“Our strategy is more than just a network design change,” Donovan added. “It’s a change in how we do business with suppliers and with how we manage platforms, systems and software. It changes our people. We have to take advantage of cultural change at our company.”  Wow, that was quite an impressive statement from an AT&T executive!

In answer to a question from a skeptical Light Reading analyst, Donovan replied that AT&T is making real progress in its evolution to SDN. He said that the company has succeeded in abstracting the control plane from the backbone network – one of the first steps to realize the separation of the control plane from data plane. “What I’m talking about is radically reshaping the WAN,” Donavan noted.

And what about this year’s roadmap for SDN?  “What we’re looking for in 2014 are beachhead projects that can move us from an old Domain 1 architecture to a Domain 2 architecture. We’re calling it D1.5,” Donovan said. The idea is to fit controllers onto AT&T’s current platforms, extending the lives of those platforms.

The beachhead projects are meant to happen quickly. AT&T has already identified “a half dozen” of them, Donovan said. Moving into 2015, AT&T hopes to start introducing applications that were born in the cloud, a buildup that should lead to a “crescendo effect,” Donovan said.

Comment & Analysis:

We wonder what version of SDN AT&T will implement?  No details on the specific network infrastructure were announced at ONS 2014, nor in any AT&T press releases.  Donovan did not mention OpenFlow in his speech and the carrier is NOT a member of the Open Network Foundation (ONF) that is standardizing that southbound API/protocol between the Control and Data planes.

At previous year ONS events, Chair Guru Parulkar, PhD, emphatically stated there was only one version of SDN, which clearly separated Control and Data planes via OpenFlow southbound API.  Anything else was “SDN washing,” he said.  That statement was not repeated at ONS 2014.  In fact most speakers said that OpenFlow was one of many protocols that would be used for SDN. Some clearly stated that they would not use OpenFlow at all, as it didn’t solve the open networking problems adequately.

In a March 14 conversation with Soren Telfer of AT&T’s Palo Alto Foundry, we learned that OpenFlow is under investigation along with many other protocols that might be used in “distributed systems.”  More about that phone interview in a forthcoming article.

In conclusion, we think AT&T has a very long way to go to transition its network to SDN and NFV.  One of the key issues will certainly be vendor interoperability when there are no universally accepted open interfaces/protocols that have been standardized.  Ericcson- one of AT&T’s Domain 2.0 vendors and host for their Palo Alto Foundry, said (at both at ONS 2014 and 2013) that they are not using OpenFlow in their SDN implementations,  So the SDN eco-system really can’t count on OpenFlow as a core standard and there are many more needed. Ultimately, the actual standards will have to be published by ITU-T as “carrier grade” SDN and NFV recommendations.

Meanwhile, we call your attention to NTT Communications, who has deployed SDN/OpenFlow for almost two years now and is planning to launch NFV this summer.  

NTT Com Leads all Network Providers in Deployment of SDN/OpenFlow; NFV Coming Soon…