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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capolite 12/5/2012 | 12:23:18 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Optical is right on about Jack Waters. His business ethics are in the gutter. He is deceitful and evasive. He uses vendors to work out his severe emotional problems. He is a major reason behind the destruction of $20B+ of shareholder value. It is disgraceful that they are paying him $500K/year.
BobbyMax 12/5/2012 | 12:24:06 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods AT&T has wasted so much of its sources that it is hard how it exists. It is hard for me to believe that AT&T has decided to deploy MPLS without knowing anything about its scalability. It also does not know how to monitor the performance of MPLS throughout the network.

MCI, Sprint and other minor carriers having away its markey share, but AT&T does not have a business model from which its requirements, needs and profits can be protected.

It has a new CEO who is unable to make the company profitable. It is time for him to go. When he was at Pacific Bell, he did not do anything to make the company profitable.
dogmeat 12/5/2012 | 12:24:19 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Scott, you said a mouthful with "This is a fiber fed device, so not exactly universal..." All the joyful and thought provoking services that are spun always assume that local loop isn't fabulously expensive and is available. Even with T and VZ delivering fiber direct to my enterprise, I still need to manage the significant costs of the access. With no slack in my access, I don't see how advanced on-demand services can be realistically implemented until there is financial reform there.

>Here's a shot, though some of these are AT&T >specific, as noted.
>MSP- MultiService Access Platform
>This is what AT&T, or at least the CTO, has >conceptualized as the universal access platform, >meaning it is small (1 rack unit), supports both >circuit and packet client side interfaces, then >packetizes those and aggregates them into a >single Gigabit Ethernet pipe for carriage >upstream. This is a fiber fed device, so not >exactly universal [snipped]
Tony Li 12/5/2012 | 12:24:21 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Strong words. As a friend of Jack's, I have to point out that for the 10 years that I've known him he's been rational, sensible, and totally straightforward. I don't always agree with him and he's always haggling on price, but altogether he's been a pleasure to work with.

optical 12/5/2012 | 12:24:22 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods In regards to the CTO comments, Jack Waters is a disgrace to Level 3. For his superiors to be such impressive folks (my opinion), how has this deranged guy lasted? I'm dumbfounded.
capolite 12/5/2012 | 12:24:22 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods What other problems does Level 3 have?

Their unethical business practices?

Their psychotic CTO? And his team of brown-nosing sycophants?

Their discredited Silicon Economics?

Their destruction of $20B worth of wealth among Omaha investors?

fiber_r_us 12/5/2012 | 12:24:24 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Which problem would that be?

Not filing bankruptcy?

Not being indicted for fraud?

or growing their customer base to the point their backbone is now number two or three??
fundamental_guy 12/5/2012 | 12:24:27 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods That explains their problems.
fiber_r_us 12/5/2012 | 12:24:45 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods Level 3 has been doing this for over two years now...
rush21 12/5/2012 | 12:24:47 AM
re: AT&T’s New Gods
Despite MPLS guy's unabashed "homerism" and love for all things Masergy, he is right about one thing. Masergy is already doing exactly what AT&T is hoping to do in three years. MPLS core, MPLS Layer 2 and 3 VPNs, Ethernet transport, Frame-relay replacement, automated provisioning, end-to-end QoS (based on TOS and not CIR), and customer control/automated service creation. Being able to start from scratch has its advantages!
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