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AT&T taps Mirantis to help refresh its Network Cloud to support 5G

The new operators may be moving rapidly, but AT&T is the poster child for an old-school telco which has seized the opportunity of transforming itself with digital, cloud and virtualization technologies. This long and challenging process should, it hopes, greatly enhance the range and value of services with which to ensure return on its 5G and fiber investments.

As part of its transformation process, it has shaken up its supply chain and introduced new vendors alongside its traditional partners. The latest new partner is cloud platform provider Mirantis, which has won a three-year deal to help the telco build out the next  generation of its Network Cloud, this one focused on 5G.

AT&T has been building this Network Cloud using software from an open source project it helped to initiate within the OpenStack Foundation, called Airship. That was kicked off last year with SK Telecom and Intel and aimed to make it easier to build and manage a cloud. AT&T is using the software to make it practicable to roll out a large number of data centers and manage them on a single lifecycle – the Network Cloud has more than 100 data centers so far. Now it plans to refresh the cloud infrastructure to align Network Cloud better with its impending 5G upgrade, and it has hired Mirantis to help. The suppliers CMO and co-founder, Boris Renski, said: “Importantly, what drove this rearchitecture and name change is the necessity to also roll out 5G workloads.”

The Network Cloud, formerly called AIC, was built using OpenStack cloud infrastructure software. Mirantis has a commercial OpenStack distribution and is an active member of the Foundation, and has also worked with AT&T over several years, to it was perhaps a logical choice to help with the transition to a next generation Network Cloud. The big difference will be that Network Cloud for 5G will be built on OpenStack using containers, managed by the Kubernetes container management systems, not virtual machines (VMs) as before.

Of course, many workloads will still be running on VMs in the legacy platform for years to come, and the first container-based workloads will be specifically related to 5G.  But AT&T’s pace of change is rapid. According to its associate VP for network cloud software engineering, Ryan Van Wyk, the telco is deploying OpenStack on Kubernetes in more than 20 regions to date.

The platform is also supporting AT&T’s FirstNet public safety network, which is running as a workload on Network Cloud, demonstrating security advances made by the Kubernetes community.

He told LightReading: “We’re progressive, we’re on the bleeding edge. The 5G core and architecture we’re implementing – we’re doing it for the first time in the world. When you’re pushing the capabilities of the available software and you’re in the front end of that, you need to innovate fast. We believe the communities around open source projects are the way to do that.”

Among the 5G-oriented virtual network functions (VNFs) to be deployed on the AT&T cloud are the virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC), RAN backhaul, traffic shaping services, customer usage tracking, smart voicemail, video streaming and many consumer facing services. However, even AT&T is currently cautious about putting a timescale on virtualizing its RAN, at any scale, in the cloud.

Mirantis CEO and co-founder Adrian Ionel explained that the company’s platform allows Kubernetes to be run on-premises, on bare metal, or in the cloud. For AT&T, that Kubernetes base will support OpenStack as a workload on top of the container orchestrator. OpenStack is needed to support NFV and to orchestrate VNFs from different vendors on one cloud. Mirantis expects the platform to run a few thousand nodes this year, and then scale to 10,000 nodes over the next three years, and more than 20,000 nodes “in the years to come”.

Mirantis’ work also involves integration of code from its Mirantis Cloud Platform (MCP), which supports VMs using OpenStack, containers using Kubernetes, and bare metal, all on the same cloud. Last year, it added its MCP Edge platform.

“This is really about Kubernetes taking a prime role in the future infrastructure of a gigantic carrier,” Ionel said. “The scale of this is really staggering.”

Mirantis is also working with India’s Reliance Jio to run OpenStack on top of Kubernetes, but companies can deploy different combinations too – for carmaker Volkswagen, it is running Kubernetes on OpenStack in an on-premises environment.

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