AT&T's decision earlier this month to put its virtualization playbook into an open source community by working with the Linux Foundation was a clear indicator that the telco believes ECOMP is ready for center stage.
In March, AT&T started opening up its Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy (ECOMP) platform to service providers, vendors and other interested parties. As a model-driven, software-centric platform, ECOMP was designed to spin up new services at a much faster rate for service providers while also giving them more control over their network services. It also enables developers to create new services. (See AT&T Seeks to Lead with ECOMP and Fuetsch Shines a Light on AT&T's Digital Transformation Plans.)
ECOMP has been in production within AT&T for the last two years, as the automation layer for its network software and virtual functions, tying both virtualized and legacy elements together. ECOMP comprises 8.5 million lines of code and eight major software subsystems.
Telco Transformation caught up with Chris Rice, AT&T Labs' vice president of advanced technologies and architecture, to hear about the new developments around ECOMP.
Telco Transformation: Why did AT&T choose to work with the Linux Foundation on ECOMP?
Chris Rice: There were a couple of reasons. One is they are experts in this area so we look for people who help complement the knowledge we have and the work that we have done. We felt that the Linux Foundation was the best place to do that. They also have a good background in this particular area. I think that a lot of the critical mass is centered around them in this area. And probably lastly, they have a history of maybe taking on things initially that are more unique and then working on ways for unifying them. From our perspective they made a lot of sense when we made our decision.
TT: What will be the scope of work around putting ECOMP into open source with the Linux Foundation?
CR: When you come to open source, there are lots of questions about the project structure. What does the structure look like? What does the steering committee look like? What are the initial working groups? What license do you open source it under? Do you have your own environment for the code? Do you leverage something they already have or something that is in open source?
Also, what is the structure when you bring people in? What is the fee base? There are a lot of questions like that. They've done those a number of times and they can help us with those questions.
TT: The advantages of ECOMP include that AT&T has been using it in production for a while now and it's vendor neutral. What are the other benefits?
CR: I think you hit the big ones. I look at this like it's a funnel. Think of a funnel with everybody working in this space. Then you go down to the next level of the funnel and you say "Which of these are not vendor proprietary or not specific to a certain class or set of VNF functions? Which ones really have a holistic architecture and supports them? Which has looked at what it would take to do these things at scale production and cover the appropriate areas of Tier 1 providers? Then which one of these has real code behind it and has been used in production by a Tier 1 provider for a year and half? Which ones are VNF neutral and then finally, which one of these is open source?" The output of that funnel gets really, really small. This is really big news for us because we've been working on this (ECOMP) for over two years.
TT: The Linux Foundation is also working with OPEN-O and then there's Open Source MANO Community, both of which were launched earlier this year. Doesn't ECOMP cover some of the same ground as some of the other open source initiatives?
CR: I think to some extent they have very similar goals, and to some extent they probably do overlap. There are some areas where they are similar so I can understand why you and some others look at them that way. What we're saying is we're different. I kind of go back to the funnel I just mentioned. I look at all of the different areas that we cover. We cover orchestration. We cover control. We cover policy. We cover data collection. We cover not just network control but also application control. We've even looked at things like portals to help where the operations folks come in. I think in terms of the holistic nature, there's a reason we have eight components and not two and not 27. We feel like we have a pretty good idea of what is necessary to make this happen and to scale in production in a Tier 1 provider.
The other part I would say is that we are a lot smarter than we were two years ago or two and half years ago when we started. That intelligence that we've gained has been put into the code as well. We have real-world experience around it besides the initial experience of running a network of our size. We have real-world SDN experience and real-world NFV experience that we've put into it.
TT: Now that ECOMP is part of an open source community, will service providers and vendors be able to change it to suit their needs?
CR: I'm pretty familiar with what went on with Hadoop. If you go back five years and look at Hadoop, I'm sure people then thought it was very mature and feature-complete relative to other options that were out there. But with open source this virtual cycle starts. You have something that attracts more people to it because they want to build use cases on it or because they want to use it. The fact that you attracted more people then attracts even more people who will naturally extend, grow and enhance it. Then you kind of get into that virtual cycle and I'm sure that will happen with ECOMP and our code.
I'm sure it will be more mature and significantly enhanced two or three years from now than it is today. But I think relative to where we are, it's mature, feature-complete and at a relatively good starting point. I think if you look historically at open source efforts, the ones that never take off are the ones that don't hit critical mass. We believe we've got it to a point where it's beyond critical mass. If we attract more people it will naturally grow.
TT: What is the importance of open source initiatives for fostering industry collaborations?
CR: When you want to do something in open source, one of the important tenets is that you don't just take from open source, you also give back to it. That's part of the community aspect. You want to be a good citizen in anything that you do. That's part of what we want to do. Our goal is that we hope this is going to be a unifying effort, an aligning effort, and that it will help mature SDN for our industry.
Editor's note: Rice recently joined the Upskill U faculty as a curriculum advisor. (See AT&T to Advise Upskill U on Curriculum.)
— Mike Robuck, Editor, Telco Transformation