AT&T’s New Gods
Hossein Eslambolchi, AT&T Corp.’s (NYSE: T) CTO, is getting giddy about MPLS. And AT&T is about to make one of the largest commitments to the technology.
At the Network Outlook conference here in San Francisco this week, Eslambolchi elaborated on the “Concept of One,” and then on Thursday on a conference call, he and Mike Jenner, VP of AT&T Global IP Network Services, spent over an hour talking Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and how it would unify the entire AT&T network.
In a span of three short years, AT&T believes it will go from today’s network of many to tomorrow’s network of one, using MPLS as the glue to unify all services, all customer applications, and all customer interaction with the network within a single logical framework – all by 2005. Is that possible? Not in three years. Is it necessary? Let’s see.
Eslambolchi and Jenner claim their enterprise customers are clamoring for a more unified network services offering, as they transform their own networks by unifying around Internet Protocol (IP). Under AT&T’s Concept of One, legacy networks such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and frame relay will be consolidated logically into a single network infrastructure through the implementation of MPLS and interworking standards. Already, customers of AT&T’s frame relay service can transition to “IP-enabled Frame” without any new gear at the customer premises. Their service is transitioned within the POP from the core ATM network to a core MPLS network, compliments of an MPLS blade on Cisco’s ATM switches. Any-to-any connectivity is supported, and the process for scaling any frame relay service is much simplified.
Concept of One is extended now to encompass all access services, which will someday be aggregated onto a new edge device called the MSP (multiservice access platform), a sort of “mini-God box” that accepts all sorts of services, packetizes them, and then aggregates them onto a Gigabit Ethernet link for transport to a larger office where a box called the MSE (Multiservice Edge) will aggregate those further and hand them off to the switched MPLS core. Both of these “mini-God” and “Big-God” boxes are interesting to behold. Think of the mini-God as a low-cost pizza box that can sit at the customer premises or end office, and the other, larger God as a very scalable edge platform that can handle up to 400 Gbit/s and provide all the necessary interworking between the legacy AT&T networks and the new MPLS-enabled core.
This undertaking, dubbed “Project Pluto” over the past few years, is coming to a head. AT&T claims they will make a vendor selection on the MSE by the end of the month, but every vendor I’ve spoken with says the requirements are impossible to fulfill, so the selection will pretty much involve the definition of what AT&T wants followed by a forced partnership between a startup and an OEM to accomplish the task. Who supplies the pizza box (and can make a profit on it) remains an open question.
Isn’t it funny how everyone hacks on startups for trying to build God boxes (only after they have been spurred to do so by an RFP) that, of course, no incumbent vendors would ever use? They ask you to build a God box and when you do you are ridiculed for your hubris.
But, before looking forward, let’s first look back. The first step in the Concept of One is to retire 130 legacy systems, though AT&T has not specified which ones. I would guess that means Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) (Stratacom) ATM switches, but it’s impossible to say until that happens. These boxes will be replaced with whatever is selected for the MSE, a system with plenty of legacy interfaces facing out and IP/MPLS facing into the network core. Which are the leading contenders? I’m guessing they’re most likely Cisco, Alcatel SA (NYSE: ALA; Paris: CGEP:PA), and startups like Équipe Communications Corp. and Laurel Networks Inc. Cisco must be considered the leader, because the AT&T data network is primarily Cisco gear.
With the MSE boxes in place, AT&T can MPLS-enable all of their network services, from frame relay to ATM to IP. VPNs will now be MPLS VPNs, and all the legacy services will be “IP-enabled.” The beauty part, AT&T claims, is the new level of consistency at the edge of the network. Performance measurement, management, and SLA verification will all be standardized around MPLS – though the AT&T execs we spoke to were clear in saying this is AT&T’s MPLS, so this functionality applies to those services beginning and ending on AT&T’s network.
Beyond the Concept of One, which intends to unify and integrate network services around an infrastructure of Ethernet transport and MPLS-based service creation, there is the “Concept of Zero,” in which service delivery is both highly reliable and automated. Within the Concept of Zero, all human-to-human and human-to-machine interaction eventually becomes automated, putting application and service control in the hands of the customer rather than the network operator.
Eslambolchi claims this is the first time in AT&T’s history that it is actively opening its network to the customer, enabling new levels of customer network management, service creation, and ordering. This is largely accomplished through new OSS (operations support systems) and BSS (business support systems) developments and is aimed at empowering the enterprise customers with the tools to basically create their own network services as they transform their own internal networks.
In this light, Eslambolchi sees AT&T’s future network as one based on two functional layers: one of connectivity, another of mediation. Mediation, he claims, is the process of bringing applications onto the unified network infrastructure and includes the building blocks of routing, security, directories, and connection control. A service like voice is no longer conceptualized as a service, per se, but an application that rides on a distributed IP network. Same goes for multicast video, corporate extranets, e-learning, and garden variety enterprise apps like CRM (customer relationship management). Application servers are accessed across the network by any variety of devices imaginable, from desktop PCs to supercomputers, mainframes, PDAs, cell phones, and televisions.
This is the heart of the matter, and reinforces what another large carrier recently told me. The edge of the network must become adaptive and programmable for application support. If AT&T’s Concept of One pulls that off, Eslambolchi deserves sainthood. If not, well… They have made some nice looking PowerPoint.
— Scott Clavenna, Director of Research, Light Reading