Optical/IP Networks

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

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erbiumfiber 12/5/2012 | 12:26:45 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Please, please, please tell me that this is NOT the actual name for this project! From the column:

>>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 GÇ£Concept of Zero,GÇ¥...<<

OK, "The Concept of One"- that's a cute little slogan-looks good on a T-shirt, mug, pen, etc. You can have nifty "kick-off" meetings. "The Concept of Zero" sounds like a project Dilbert would be assigned to (like the brown ring of quality that Dogbert, the consultant, creates for a project a la the Lucent "ring of innovation" or whatever that is.)

So many start-ups and established companies got burned on the whole "god box" thing, it figures that T is just picking up on it now that it has come and gone (and I guess is coming again according to your article...).

Good column-captures the whole T organization rather nicely...
skeptic 12/5/2012 | 12:26:42 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Isn&#8217;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.
Just to be clear, the RFP's for the god-boxes
have not been around all that long and they
vary depending on the carrier. When you do
a startup, you have to guess a couple years
out usually what people are going to want.
And making those guesses for the god-boxes
has proved to be extremely problematical.

The fact that nobody got it right in the end
proves how difficult it was to guess requirements
on something that didn't exist and wasn't clearly
defined by the customer at that time.

Scott Clavenna 12/5/2012 | 12:26:41 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods You'll find it in his own words here:


Garam Masala 12/5/2012 | 12:26:41 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods I have a Yahweh box...
Does that count?
Garam Masala 12/5/2012 | 12:26:40 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Don't underestimate the power of Zero.

erbiumfiber 12/5/2012 | 12:26:24 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Well, while they have applied for "concept of one" as a service mark:


at LEAST they haven't applied for "the concept of zero" as a service mark. There is still hope for the intellectual property department...

Thanks for posting the link.
flanker 12/5/2012 | 12:25:57 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods They ask you to build a God box and when you do you are ridiculed for your hubris.

Scott-What you described isn't god Box architecture. You are talkiing about ethernet access trunked onto an MPLS enabled backbone.

It isn't news that MPLS bridges the gap between layer2 and layer3.

By contrast, each node on a network designed around God box architecture would accomodate ATM, IP, ethernet and switched voice traffic on a different access blade and presumably dump the traffic over SONET on the transport side.

That was the Tachion business model, no?

Garam Masala 12/5/2012 | 12:25:54 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods GÇ£That was the Tachion business model, no?GÇ¥

Tachion started with a polytheistic business model.
The monotheists invaded and installed their religious hierarchy.

jim_smith 12/5/2012 | 12:25:52 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods The Concept of Zero Accountability

The CTO will never be held accountable for the psychadelic visions he/she will get every so often so that he/she can justify his/her existence.

No, really... does anyone keep track of what these guys say and then compare it with what really happens? I've always felt that the CTO should really be named CHO (Chief Hype Officer).
douggreen 12/5/2012 | 12:25:44 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods In the words of Yogi Berra, this is deja-vu all over again.

This is the exact same path that ATM edge went down in the 1990s, all at the direction of the strategist at the service providers. The holy grail was a product that could support any service (including TDM via circuit emulation). The problem then was exactly as it was now: the product was technically feasible, but could never meet the price points to make the services profitable.

If history repeats itself, the companies that pursue the dream will find themselves priced out of the market. The companies that build cheap, focused boxes will win the most business.
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