During a keynote session yesterday at the Big Telecom Event, AT&T Senior Vice President for Network Architecture and Design Andre Fuetsch outlined AT&T’s approach to network evolution and transformation. In the simplest of terms, AT&T wants a network that’s more akin to Facebook or Google, than to the ‘hardware centric’ telecom network that most of us in the business have been accustomed to. AT&T hopes to get there by 2020.
Fuetsch laid out a pretty compelling case as to why telecom carriers should look to ‘webscale’ companies like Facebook when thinking about the future of the network. Traditional telecom network thinking and planning has been focused on hardware solutions. As network demand grew, you simply added more hardware to accommodate it. That strategy worked in a fairly predictable TDM based world. But in an IP world, it’s a risky, expensive, and inefficient approach.
Historically, calling patterns were predictable and manageable. In the world of connected devices, OTT video, and IoT, patterns are very unpredictable. There’s no industry calendar that helps network operators plan for the next hit Netflix show, or Android update, or Beyonce album drop. Data usage can spike in an instant, and network operators need to be prepared at all times. Trying to do so through continually adding hardware could potentially bankrupt a network operator.
AT&T Network Transformation
The answer is a software centric approach that allows network operators to manage their networks in an IP world, says Fuetsch. In very basic terms, that’s what software defined networking (SDN) and network virtualization function (NFV) are all about – scaling, managing, and operating data focused IP networks to handle the unpredictable nature of a broadband world. And positioning network operators to maximize profitability while doing so.
According to Fuetsch, AT&T is “all in.” He says they really have no choice. He cited statistics including wireless demand growth of 1,000% since 2007, and predictions are 10x growth by 2020. AT&T aims to have 75% of their entire network managed through software and virtualization by 2020. Fuetsch says 5% of it will be accomplished by the end of 2015.
To do so, they are transforming 200 network functions, of which TDM voice, ATM, and frame relay services are not included. “We want to focus on things with longevity and a future,” said Fuetsch. That does include things like their 4G core network and VoIP. Fuetsch cited some existing services that are already under SDN control, including their enterprise focused network on demand product and their mobile call recording service.
Other benefits that Fuestch cited include standardization of network processes. He pointed to a somewhat surprising company model for a telecom network transformation – Southwest Airlines. They’ve standardized on Boeing 737 aircraft, which simplifies their operations, Fuetsch said. In an SDN/NFV world AT&T hopes to have similar standardization benefits.
This is a tremendous undertaking by AT&T. They have over 2,000 engineers devoted to the process. “This is quite an ocean, it’s important how you boil it,” said Fuetsch. “The biggest challenge we have is a cultural one.”
The goal is to have AT&T’s network look more like Facebook’s or Google’s, where software is the brains of the network, and hardware is commoditized. It’s the so called ‘webscale’ approach, where networks can easily scale to meet the demands of a globally connected marketplace.
Where applications can easily be turned up or down, within minutes, not days or weeks. Where customers can buy services on-demand, through a self-service web portal. Where potential network troubles can be predicted and addressed before they even happen.
It’s a transformational process. One that all network operators are facing, regardless of size or location. The technical issues are quite challenging, but they pale in comparison to the cultural shift that has to take place.
Look around at your company. Is your central office transitioning to a data center or is it full of switching “iron?” Does your culture resemble a legacy phone company that is rather predictable, or is it agile and able to adapt to a world where Facebook and Apple have customers’ attention? What is your ratio of software engineers to inside plant technicians? Is ordering your products and services easy for customers, or laborious and time consuming?
Just a few of many important questions to ask when addressing this important, timely, and inevitable network transformation issue.