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AT&T Reveals Audacious SDN Plans

Mitch Wagner

SANTA CLARA -- Open Networking Summit (ONS) 2014 -- I'm glad AT&T's senior technology VP John Donovan didn't give me a darned good thrashing after I challenged him about the company's software-defined networking (SDN) plans. He's a boxer and a hockey player. He could totally thrash me.

Donovan, senior executive vice president for technology and network operations at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), described the operator's audacious SDN plans at an Open Networking Summit 2014 plenary Tuesday, adding more detail to the brief presentation he gave a week ago at Mobile World Congress. (See AT&T's Cloud Future Takes Shape.)

The carrier is committed to shifting to a more agile networking strategy, which it's calling User-Defined Network Cloud. "We intend to provide elastic network services, just like cloud provides elastic computing and storage services today," Donovan said. Customers will be able to self-provision networking services on the fly, as needed, just as they now do with compute services and storage from cloud providers.

AT&T's John Donovan
Getting ready to deliver a thrashing.
Getting ready to deliver a thrashing.

But it's a big job, and the company is just getting started. "There is much to do before our vision is realized," Donovan said.

To make that change, AT&T is changing everything about the company, including how the network is built, equipment and software, how the company buys, and its operations and culture.

IDC analyst Nav Chander questioned Donovan during the Q&A portion of the executive's presentation. Chander asked about disruption to AT&T corporate culture, potentially threatening AT&T employee jobs.

Donovan said AT&T executives see it as their responsibility to communicate the strategic change to employees and give employees the tools to make the change with AT&T. The company is working with Udacity and Georgia Tech to provide training, with a focus on certification rather than degrees.

"The objective is to leave no person behind who wants to make the journey and has the desire and fortitude to get it done," Donovan said.

AT&T is looking to recruit staff who want to work on this vision, Donovan said.

And now the part where I risked bodily harm.

I commandeered the microphone during Donovan's presentation, and suggested Donovan, who had been talking about plans for SDN, could perhaps appear a laggard, given that he was following in the wake of a presentation from NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT) that outlined the progress it's already making with SDN.

Or did I mishear Donovan's presentation?

Donovan said I did, indeed, mishear him. The company is making real progress, he said. For example, they've succeeded in abstracting the control plane from the backbone. "What I'm talking about is radically reshaping the WAN."

I wanted to hear more about AT&T's progress in transitioning to SDN, but they didn't agree to my request for a meeting.

I can't imagine why. I'm such a charming person.

I'll have more about what NTT had to say in a follow-up article.

Unless I'm unable to type following a thrashing from Donovan.

More about AT&T's network plans:

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading.
Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to mwagner@lightreading.com.

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User Rank: Light Beer
6/9/2015 | 3:01:18 PM
Re: Self provisioning..
Can't agrees more. That is why, UK O2 and Telefonica Germany both have adopted SpatialBuzz crowd sourcing solution instead of traditional CEM solution (from southbound like Tektronix) to improve overall customer scarification and reduced call center calls dramatically. They are about to win another Tier-1 operator in the N. American region.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
3/17/2014 | 1:20:02 PM
Re: What about the bucks?
sam masud - Good point. As a recent Heavy Reading analyst report notes, billing systems represent a huge challenge for SDN/NFV
sam masud
sam masud,
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/17/2014 | 11:46:33 AM
What about the bucks?
Will this present a challenge in billing subscribers? If so, how does AT&T plan to addres that? Just curious...
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
3/7/2014 | 6:01:27 PM
Re: Self provisioning..
Customer happiness over self-service support will depend on how well the support work. Self-service can be an attractive alternative to spending an hour on the phone with tech support -- but not if it takes 90 minutes. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/6/2014 | 4:16:56 PM
Self provisioning..
Seems like the trend is for service providers of all kinds to offload as much customer support as they can to the customer.. In some cases, this is a welcome thing -- so customers don't have to wait a week and schedule a 4hr window of time to meet with a truck roll. But sometimes, this trend can be annoying like when you have to spend an hour of your own time trying to troubleshoot equipment that should "just work" when you plug it in.

Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
3/5/2014 | 11:54:12 PM
Re: Putting control in the hand of the customer
While AT&T and vendors were talking about self-provisioning, Microsoft demonstrated it. Service providers with long rollout plans my find when they arrive at their destination that the industry has moved on.
User Rank: Light Sabre
3/5/2014 | 2:26:54 PM
Re: Putting control in the hand of the customer
Self-service and the ability to quickly delpoy rev-gen features and services across parts of the network, for trials, and the entire network for commercialization.  I understand the biz-dev folks at the operators are closely linking up with the network and tech teams to understand when all this will happen.  But I think you have to realize that moving the traditional network to a virtual network is like trying to change a jet engine while the plane is in flight.  :-)
Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
3/5/2014 | 10:53:27 AM
Putting control in the hand of the customer
This is going to be THE theme going forward for the SDN-NFV transition. And yeah, easier said than done, with a whole lot of work to do within the network to make this happen. But the direction is on-target. I think we'll hear more and more service providers talk this way about SDN and NFV. It's not the capex and opex savings, it's not the service agility per se, it's the self-service capabilities that count. 
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