AI and microservices: the next steps in AT&T’s reinvention as an open telco

AT&T has made considerable waves in the mobile industry by shaking up its supply chain, adopting aggressive roadmaps for software-defined networking (SDN) and network virtualization, and even placing key technology developments into open source, notably its ECOMP management and orchestration (MANO)  software, now the basis of the ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol) platform, hosted by the Linux Foundation.

All this highlights how the operator of the future could look. It will have a dramatically different cost base, relying heavily on open source and multivendor technologies as well as software rather than proprietary hardware. But that openness means additional resource and work is needed inhouse (or via integrators) to make open source platforms fully optimal for the demanding processes of telecoms networks. Telcos like BT have spoken of the significant investment in skills and technologies to enable an open platform like Openstack to behave like the highly tuned, specialized but proprietary systems of old.

Contributing some of these inhouse efforts back to the community via open source can reduce the pain and cost for others, accelerate overall progress towards software-defined platforms and 5G, and increase the influence and power of the donating operator. That, in turn, can allow a carrier like AT&T to seize the dominant position in the value chain from the end-to-end equipment vendors, hastening the shift to an open ecosystem more like that of WiFi, and so driving costs down over time (a fair return, the company believes, for the upfront investment in technologies like ONAP and in another open initiative AT&T founded, X-RAN).

This is all part of AT&T’s bid to be “ a very different telco”, as chief strategy officer John Donovan explained back in February when the operator scored the coup of getting ECOMP adopted as the basis of ONAP, swallowing up China Mobile’s rival OPEN-O in the process. Donovan promised greater openness with customers, partners and suppliers, and new ways to work with them, enabled by mechanisms like AT&T’s Network 3.0 Indigo data sharing framework, and by virtualization (which should apply to 55% of network functions by the end of this year).

He believes AT&T is uniquely positioned where the three most important trends in telecoms – SDN, 5G and ‘giant data’ – intersect. “When you take all three of those and you look at the intersection of them, there is no one else who can come talk to you today,” he said. “At the intersection, the platform that is born out of that, that’s what we refer to as Indigo.”

These activities in cloud and SDN platforms are making AT&T behave, and procure systems, like an IT heavyweight as much as a telco. Indeed, Intel says AT&T is the first telco to join the ‘Super 7’ group of Internet giants who spend so much that they get early access to new chip technology. The seven members are Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent.

Last week, AT&T was providing updates on some of the central initiatives within this ambitious roadmap, at its AT&T Summit.

First, the telco announced that it was working with Indian integrator Tech Mahindra to build an open source AI platform, called Acumos, which would be hosted by the Linux Foundation in the same way as ECOMP/ONAP.

The aim is to make it cheaper and simpler for AT&T – and other operators – to deploy and share AI applications, via a marketplace system. That will accelerate the uptake of AI-driven telco processes, from network planning and optimization, to consumer services; and it will also reduce the power of the major AI platform providers.

Acumos is an extensible framework for AI and machine learning (ML) solutions, built on open source technologies and running on AT&T Indigo. It can federate across various AI tools available today (for instance connecting two microservices derived from Google and Amazon). It allows those AI microservices to be edited, integrated, packaged, trained and deployed and they can then be accessed from the marketplace, and chained to create more complex services.

As AT&T is getting Acumos into the open source process at an earlier stage than it did ECOMP, it should benefit more quickly from innovations coming from a wide community.

“We’re opening up AI,” said Mazin Gilbert, VP of advanced technology at AT&T Labs. “We’re focusing on the telecommunication, media and technology spaces, starting with the network. The platform will be available to anyone and the more users who adopt it, the better it will get.”

“The problem – which is why we started this – is we have tens of these applications. Each of them is a different technology, different tool, different set of people, different vendor, different partner, even a different team inside AT&T,” Gilbert went on. “How do we go from tens to thousands? The answer is that we can’t, it’s cost-prohibitive. Acumos helps to stitch together the outputs of many of the great AI tools in the industry so they’re Legos, not snowflakes.”

The ultimate aim, as with ECOMP, is to create a de facto standard for AI in the telecoms networking space. Gilbert added: “We invite others to join us to create a global harmonization in AI and set the stage for all future AI network applications and services.”

Meanwhile, Tech Mahindra will work with enterprises to help them apply the AI services and tap into intelligent telecoms connectivity to enable new use cases. The firm’s SVP and strategic business unit head, Raman Abrol, said: “Our ultimate goal with the Acumos Project is to accelerate and industrialize the deployment of AI at enterprises and get developers and businesses to collaborate effectively in order to improve how we all live, work and play.”

Acumos is just part of the overall strategy for AT&T to push SDN and the future, fully automated, AI-driven network.

In her keynote at the Summit, Melissa Arnoldi, president of technology and operations for AT&T Communications, said microservices would be a fundamental part of that process, allowing new applications to be created, customized, scaled up and adapted within a few days by combining different pre-programmed elements.

“Believe it or not, we have more than 2,200 applications in our IT ecosystem today, and we plan to lead the industry in migrating these strategic apps to microservices … so we can create agility, speed and scalability,” she told the attendees.

AT&T is working with IBM to design and develop microservices as part of their new

microservices supplier program, and by year end, AT&T plans to have deployed about 200 to support business functions like mobile payments, as well as the Acumos AI program. This approach will reduce cost, risk and time to market.

For instance, the Work Flow microservice is used by AT&T technicians to address customer issues. It strings together specific changes across 19 systems, without having to modify each one individually. AT&T also uses microservices to develop, manage and track contracts.

Other operators such as Deutsche Telekom and Verizon also see microservices as a stepping stone to automation and for improved customer responsiveness.

Also at the Summit, AT&T was setting out its particular strategy for edge computing. “Edge compute is the next step in getting more out of our network, and we are busy putting together an edge computing architecture,” said Alicia Abella, a senior executive at AT&T Labs, in a keynote at the recent Fog World Congress, and her words were echoed at AT&T’s own event.

There are many religious arguments about the location of the network edge, and where edge-based computing, storage and other distributed cloud resources should be located. Some telcos, including AT&T, are shifting from early enthusiasm for ETSI Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC), which integrates the processors tightly with the mobile network layout and places them as near the end user as possible, to more IT-driven architectures like OpenFog. This looks to place the resources anywhere in the network, from data center to user device, depending on use case, with the overall objective being to maximise resource efficiency and reduce latency, by sending less traffic to the central servers, easing the strain on the network itself.

“We want to deploy edge compute nodes in mobile data centers, in buildings, at customers’ locations and in our central offices. Where it is…depends on where there is demand, where we have spectrum, we are developing methods for optimizing the locations,” Abella explained.

Abella does not yet foresee very miniaturized edge systems, although AT&T has conducted demos running video surveillance applications on a Raspberry Pi. Edge systems “could be as small as that, but more realistically we foresee some as small as a walk-in closet,” she commented. She added: “Imagine a new class of devices, or AR/VR without tethering to a computer but using mobile-edge compute…imagine a path to access signal processing in the edge.”

As with ECOMP and Acumos, AT&T aims to define an open software platform for edge computing so developers can write applications for it from 2020 – initially for its own use, but potentially later as a de facto standard. Abella believes that, eventually, such a platform could support crowdsourcing of processing, storage and connectivity in a way that would shake up the operator and enterprise cost base yet again.

AT&T can congratulate itself that it has been sufficiently visionary to embrace telecoms/IT/web convergence, rather than just talking about it like most of its peers, and so carve out a new identify for itself which should take it well beyond the specifics of US market rivalries and regulatory structures.

However, it must also be careful not to push so far out of its comfort zone that its actions misfire because it lacks the right skills and contacts. There is a difficult line for operators to draw when they start to become cloud providers, and though AT&T may be behaving like a web giant, with its open source projects and infrastructure investments, its recent alliances with Amazon, IBM, Tech Mahindra and others indicate that it knows it has limitations too.

This seems to show AT&T acknowledging a reality which most carriers will have to do too – that they are not in a position to compete with Amazon AWS or IBM directly in offering cloud services. But they have highly valuable expertise in device connectivity and management, and in provisioning and monetizing large numbers of gadgets and consumers. So alliances like this one are sure to proliferate, though some telcos will be more successful than others in avoiding a bitpipe role in the cloud, and securing a significant role in the value chain when they join forces with Amazon, Microsoft or vertical market platforms like GE’s Industrial Internet Initiative (in which AT&T is also the primary carrier member).

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson insists that the primary asset in the cloud value chain is the network. “We said we are not going to compete in this commoditized cloud. Actually, the cloud is what’s being commoditized; it’s not the network,” he said.