Light Reading

AlcaLu Breathes New Life Into Bell Labs

Ray Le Maistre

Alcatel-Lucent is determined to make its Bell Labs operation "relevant again" as part of its Shift Plan transformation by aligning the R&D operation's focus with its parent company's strategy, according to the recently appointed president of the labs. (See: Alcatel-Lucent Builds Future Around IP.)

Marcus Weldon, who is also corporate CTO at Alcatel-Lucent, was named Bell Labs president in early November. He outlined his initial plans and thoughts during a news briefing in London in December.

"Bell Labs lost its way in the late 1990s until recently. It didn't really know what to innovate on, because its parent was in flux, as was the industry," said Weldon. "Bell Labs is most successful when it's solving problems, such as the microwave radiation problem."

Alcatel-Lucent CTO and Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon.
Alcatel-Lucent CTO and Bell Labs president Marcus Weldon.

There's no shortage of problems to solve, but it helps that "there is much greater certainty of what this industry is all about, thanks to the convergence of telco and IT networks" and the introduction of software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV).

To help guide the 700 or so people who work at Bell Labs, and to help "reinvent and rejuvenate" the operation, which has a number of sites around the world -- Shanghai, Antwerp, Tel Aviv, as well as New Jersey -- Weldon has drawn up seven "innovation domains" that require focused R&D work:

  • Network capacity
  • Network performance
  • Network optimization
  • Network energy
  • Network security (especially for virtualized applications)
  • Network applications
  • Devices (with a focus on how they connect to and interact with the network, rather than the development of end-user devices such as smartphones and tablets)

That's a broad focus. In fact, Weldon himself said that Bell Labs would be shying away from only two main areas of the communications networking domain: end user devices and IT server blades/processors. But he's determined to get Bell Labs in line with AlcaLu's new trajectory and dealing with the main industry challenges head on. At present, the "alignment on solving big industry challenges is not as strong as I would like."

The new energy behind Bell Labs, and the shift toward the unification of telecom and IT, means Weldon will be looking to add some people to the Bell Labs team, though some will also be lost as part of the Shift Plan layoffs. (See: Alcatel-Lucent to Cut 10,000 Jobs.)

The R&D operation lost people to the web giants in Silicon Valley a decade ago. "We need to hire some people who would otherwise work there. We'll be hiring some talent in that area."

And there may be a more focused approach to development work, aligned around smaller teams. In that respect, Weldon cited Basil Alwan, the head of AlcaLu's IP Division. "Basil says the best R&D team is the smallest one that can get something done," and Alwan's team has built its unarguable success in the past decade around "one piece of software and one chipset." (See: TiMetra at Heart of AlcaLu's Shift.)

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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Liz Greenberg
Liz Greenberg,
User Rank: Light Sabre
1/7/2014 | 7:12:07 PM
Re: Weldon has what it takes
Ray I think making sure that Bell Labs aligns with the overall corporate strategy is the kiss of death for innovation.  Bell Labs greatness came from the tinkerers and thinkers who played with new novel ideas some of which got used sooner. some later, and some not ever.  Remembering the great US company that Bell Labs was is not the French company that AlcaLu is today.  I don't think Weldon is going to do a lot unless he now takes a page from Google Labs and truly lets innovation happen. Come to think of it, maybe Google Labs IS the Bell Labs of today!
User Rank: Blogger
12/29/2013 | 11:26:34 AM
Re: Weldon has what it takes
I think this time the president is more in tune with the overall corporate strategy and that Bell Labs is being asked to be more aligned with that strategy.

The question is - will that approach stifle innovation? Can innovation truly exist in the constraints of a corporate directive? 
User Rank: Lightning
12/28/2013 | 4:11:49 AM
Re: Weldon has what it takes
3rd or 4th chief Bell Labs is seeing in the past couple of years. What's happening at Bell Labs !!!.
User Rank: Blogger
12/27/2013 | 7:04:34 AM
Weldon has what it takes
Weldon has the drive and charisma to inject new life into Bell Labs - the question is whether the engineers respond or not.
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