Dell is latest vendor to join AT&T’s Airship-driven cloud platform

AT&T is positioning itself as the pivotal company in an ecosystem of telco-oriented cloud providers. That started a few years ago with its Domain 2.0 supply chain reorganization, introducing new vendors alongside established ones to support its conversion to software-defined networking (SDN), virtualized networks and white box servers and switches.

It has built on that internal process by contributing various developments for virtualized networks into open source, hoping to create global de facto standards according to its own vision of the cloud network (these include the Linux Foundation-hosted ONAP and ORAN).

And it is assembling an increasingly broad range of strategic partnerships with major IT suppliers, via direct alliances – like those with Microsoft Azure and Amazon AWS – and under the auspices of industry groupings like the OpenStack Foundation.

Its latest partnership is with Dell, which itself is eyeing the opportunity to increase its business with telcos by providing physical and virtual cloud infrastructure optimized for the needs of next generation networks, especially 5G. The two companies will co-develop open infrastructure technology with 5G in mind, using Airship, a set of open source tools, originally created by AT&T, which automate cloud provisioning and the lifecycle management of virtual network functions (VNFs). The open Airship project was kicked off last year with SK Telecom and Intel and aims to make it far simpler to build and manage a cloud.

Many of AT&T’s key partnerships start as commercial deals to enhance the expansion of its own cloud platforms, and then evolve into alliances to develop new open source industry standards, and/or to tackle mutual commercial opportunities. So its work with Amdocs on an internal management and orchestration (MANO) technology for virtual networks led to the formation of the ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol) initiative, which is the basis of a considerable systems integration push by Amdocs.

And its partnership with Azure will initially target the migration of internal data center – and later network – functions to the public cloud, to reduce AT&T’s own costs and improve efficiencies. But the partners will also jointly address external enterprise requirements for cloud-based telecoms services.

The same evolution is likely for the Dell deal, which is part of AT&T Network Cloud (the new name for its internal cloud infrastructure program), but will expand to work on open platforms (Dell is active in many open source groups) and on enterprise services combining AT&T’s telecoms, security and network-as-a-service strengths with its ally’s infrastructure and data center skills (AT&T has a similar synergistic enterprise partnership with AWS).

AT&T has been building its Network Cloud using Airship software, because it says this makes 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. It is also refreshing its cloud infrastructure to align Network Cloud better with its impending 5G upgrade, with the help of Mirantis and cloud partners like Dell and Microsoft. Mirantis’s  CMO and co-founder, Boris Renski, said: “Importantly, what drove this re-architecture is the necessity to also roll out 5G workloads.” Other partners in AT&T’s Airship/Network Cloud project include SuSE, Intel, Ericsson, Mirantis and 99Cloud.

As Dell was added to the mix, Amy Wheelus, VP of AT&T Network Cloud, said: “Dell Technologies’ addition to the Airship community reaffirms the industry’s growing trust and investment in the open infrastructure model. This collaboration will not only enable us to accelerate the AT&T Network Cloud on the Dell Technologies infrastructure, but also further the broader community goal of making it as simple as possible for operators to deploy and manage open infrastructure in support of SDN and other workloads.”

Within the open source community, especially Airship, Dell and AT&T will work on a common approach to a distributed, software-defined and disaggregated network, based on open cloud infrastructure and with full automation of optimization and service delivery. These are the core requirements for 5G to deliver on its promises, AT&T believes, and it claims that the second release of Airship will come close to this vision.

Dell has a similar agreement in place with Orange to co-develop technology for distributed cloud architectures to underpin real time edge computing and 5G use cases. To such partnerships, it brings expertise in hardware, RAID storage and BIOS. In return, it sees technologies like Airship as a way to reduce the complexity of deploying open source infrastructure, which has often required large consulting and developer budgets to tune the platforms up to support highly demanding network functions, such as a virtualized RAN, to carrier standards of performance and reliability.

Eric Vallone, Dell’s  director of product management and architecture for telco solutions, said: “By banishing that complexity, we are able to get to deployment much quicker, and at a much broader scale” – the scale needed to deploy huge numbers of servers of all sizes to support highly distributed virtualized networks as well as edge computing systems.

AT&T will work with Dell to accelerate the completion of Airship 2.0, to increase the automation of cloud provisioning and VNF lifecycle management in pursuit of the 5G vision. The two companies will also jointly work to enhance other related open source efforts including Metal3-io and OpenStack Ironic; integrate the Kubernetes Cluster API into the Airship platform; and deliver open source automation capabilities, based on Airship, throughout the stack on Dell cloud infrastructure.

“Dell Technologies is working closely with AT&T to combine our joint telco industry best practices with decades of data centre transformation experience to help service providers quickly roll out new breeds of experiential edge and 5G services,” said Kevin Shatzkamer, VP of Dell EMC Service Provider Solutions. “As the world leader in servers, storage and personal computers, Dell’s world class supply chain is best positioned to deliver the cost structure, predictability and access to emerging infrastructure technologies required to enable the transition to a more open, disaggregated mobile network.”

AT&T’s Airship:

Last summer, AT&T added Airship to a string of open source projects it has initiated to drive common approaches to cloudifying the telecoms network – these include ONAP, ORAN, Akraino, Acumos, dNOS and others.

Airship was developed with SK Telecom, Intel and the OpenStack Foundation. It builds on the OpenStack HELM project, which included all three of its authors plus others.

Amy Wheelus, VP of Network Cloud at AT&T, wrote on a company blog at the time that Airship lets “cloud operators manage sites at every stage from creation through minor and major updates, including configuration changes and OpenStack upgrades … Simply put, Airship lets you build a cloud easier than ever before”.

She added that Airship is designed to make it easy for telcos, or any other enterprises, to “predictably build and manage cloud infrastructure”, by using a fully containerized, cloud-native platform, as operators start to move from virtual machines to more efficient and flexible container-based microservices.

Each Airship microservice takes on one specific role in the cloud delivery and management process to support easier scaling, up or down.

“The ultimate goal of Airship is to help operators take hardware from loading dock to an OpenStack cloud, all while ensuring first class lifecycle management of that cloud once it enters production,” Wheelus wrote.

She added that Airship will be the foundation of AT&T’s virtualized core network and of its new Akraino Edge Stack, which recently became a Linux Foundation project and will result in an open source software stack to support high-availability edge cloud services.

In addition, “Airship will fuel and accelerate our Network AI initiative, which houses several of our other open source projects,” Wheelus went on. “We want to build and nurture an open ecosystem of developers who can work together to advance this technology and deploy it within their own organizations.”

The initial focus of Airship is the building of a “declarative” platform to introduce OpenStack on Kubernetes and the lifecycle management of the resulting cloud. Wheelus described “declarative” as whereby “every aspect of your cloud is defined in standardized documents that give you extremely flexible and fine grain control of your cloud infrastructure. You simply manage the documents themselves and submit them and the platform takes care of the rest. This includes determining what has changed since the last submission and orchestrating those changes.”