AT&T Seeks Help on Culture Change Issues

'Disruptive' vendors, open source community and academia all play a role in helping major telecom operator reshape its internal culture, says exec

December 23, 2014

5 Min Read
AT&T Seeks Help on Culture Change Issues

AT&T is counting on "disruptive" vendors and the open source community as it works to transform its internal culture as a key part of the SDN/NFV transformation, says one of its top technology executives.

Andre Fuetsch, senior VP of architecture and design for AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and the man John Donovan says is overseeing the architecture for AT&T's next-gen network, admits up front that culture change is critical to the success of AT&T's move to a software-centric network -- as described by Donovan in his blog here. (See AT&T Touts SDN Push, Seeks Talent.)

"There is certainly the technology aspect of this," he tells Light Reading in an interview. "The dimension of this that is equally if not more important is the cultural transformation we are talking about -- this is especially significant with a telecom operator such as ourselves that has been in business for more than 100 years. As you can imagine we have a lot of legacy culture that, frankly, has to change."

Some of the vendors AT&T has named for its Domain 2.0 project are beyond the company's usual list of suspects and can even be called "disruptors," and these companies are already bringing a more software-based approach to AT&T, he says. Not surprisingly, Fuetsch declines to name specific vendors as "disruptors" -- "My phone would be ringing off the hook" -- and quickly credits some of AT&T's more traditional vendors with transforming their own businesses to be based on intelligent software, not purpose-built hardware.

Just glancing at the announced list of 10 AT&T Domain 2.0 vendors, some of the newer players that might fall into that disruptor category include Affirmed Networks Inc. , Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD) and Metaswitch Networks . (See AT&T Adds Brocade, Ciena, Cisco to Its SDN, NFV Program.)

As for the role of the open source community, AT&T sees the forums in which it is participating as a key part of the broader ecosystem that includes its vendors and even the academic community. All of those influences are part of the move away from traditional monolithic vertical systems developed by a few trusted partners, Fuetsch notes.

"Now with [the] decomposition of software from hardware, we are looking at decomposing that software piece to say, 'Hey, what are pieces we want to build internally ourselves and what are the pieces we want to go outside to this more open community?'" he says. "And then also, what are the components that we want to put back into open source, to make it more of a two-way street in terms of the contributions? Those are the kind of the fundamentally different things we are doing that are part of the transformation we are on."

What AT&T has developed is an internal framework, which he calls the VCOMP, for virtual control, orchestration, management and policy, and the company evaluates which areas of that framework it wants to develop through an open source approach and which it wants to develop internally.

Typically, Fuetsch says, the company will turn to open source approaches for help in areas where the general industry momentum is positive and helpful and where AT&T doesn't see true differentiation. In those arenas, the company is "okay with putting those things out there" for the open-source community to use, whether that is through the Open Platform for NFV Project Inc. organization, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) 's NFV Industry Specifications Group, OpenStack or other forums.

"So we are looking at various areas, and within each area, there are some things we can potentially put out there to the open source community," he says. ""But there things [around which] we have actually already wrapped up some intellectual property and we are protecting that because that is where we think we can differentiate from the other SPs out there."

AT&T, which currently has executives in leadership positions at both the ETSI NFV ISG (Steven Wright) and OPNFV (Margaret Chiosi), is also looking to the open source community for input and for talent, Fuetsch says. (You can read recent Light Reading interviews with Wright here and with Chiosi here.)

Asked if holding those key leadership spots is an advantage or just a lot of extra work, Fuetsch chuckles a bit, but gives a serious answer.

"You called out two of the forums; we are participating in many and if we are going to be leaders, we need to be leaders in the forums as well," he says. "It is appropriate for us to be at those levels in those particular forums. That's all I can say."

There is also a tighter engagement with academia on many issues around virtualization, Fuetsche says, and he sees that as a good thing. AT&T recently hosted its own SDN Summit, to bring together experts including academics in the NFV and SDN realms. While AT&T has long been engaged with academia, he notes, what is different now is the level of engagement, and he points to the company's investment in ON.labs as an example of that. (See ON.Lab Intros Open Source SDN OS.)

"The level of engagement with academia is getting tighter which is good on several dimensions," Fuetsch comments. "One is that they are working way out there on the horizon, they are far up in the catbird seat in terms of what they see as the new ideas and approaches to this. By getting closer, we are basically getting access and availability to that. It also is really helping us too with attracting talent and bringing them into the organization -- and not just us but also our partners as well."

Fuetsch says AT&T will be making more significant announcements in 2015 -- he chooses not to spill the beans early. Donovan, senior EVP-AT&T Technology and Operations, is expected to speak more on these themes as well, on January 5 at the conclusion of AT&T's Developers Summit.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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