NFV Strategies

AT&T Flexes On-Demand Muscle, Snags Ericsson

AT&T says it has expanded the availability of its on-demand network services and begun supporting products from additional vendors in response to growing demand, with Ericsson unveiled as one of its latest customers.

Branded Flexware following its launch in July last year, the service is now available in more than 200 countries, up from 153 in October, and has been "sold" at more than 2,000 sites, says Roman Pacewicz, the senior vice president of offer management and service integration for AT&T.

The broader industry has been keeping a close watch on AT&T's deployment amid rising interest in cloud and on-demand technologies but some concern about the commercial and technical challenges they pose.

AT&T's additional service options comprise new security products from Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), Check Point Software Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: CHKP) and Palo Alto Networks Inc. Previously, Fortinet Inc. had been the only vendor providing similar security expertise.

Being able to mix and match vendors has been a priority for AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) as it transforms its network, taking advantage of software and virtualization technologies, and the operator's own customers seem to have been demanding the same kind of flexibility.

"Customers like the idea of the multivendor environment and we believe that is our differentiation because our platform is agnostic to the software you choose," Pacewicz tells Light Reading. "A customer might say I want to try a Fortinet firewall and if I don't like it I will switch to Palo Alto, and we can support that. You couldn't do that before because you had to send physical appliances and that is one reason we are seeing lots of traction."

Having previously announced IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM) as a major Flexware customer, AT&T today revealed that Swedish equipment vendor Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) is also rolling out services across its global corporate network, hinting that other customer announcements could follow in the next couple of weeks.

"The value proposition is strong anywhere we can legally deliver a service and as a result the penetration globally is really good," says Pacewicz. "Between two thirds and three quarters of sites provisioned are outside the US."

In its own press release comments on the deal, Ericsson said it hoped to reduce "the total cost of network ownership" by virtualizing its network services and that it would be able to avoid getting "locked into … proprietary hardware solutions."

Market watchers may note the irony of the update. Telcos including AT&T have been investing in software and virtualization technologies at least partly because they no longer want to be tied to one vendor and its products, and Ericsson has evidently been a major figure in the traditional landscape.

Like other major vendors, it has also previously thrived by selling "proprietary hardware solutions" and has only recently questioned the business case surrounding the use of more "open source" technologies.

"Technology is moving forward and we are all trying to figure out how to play in a world where software is now the differentiator," said Pacewicz when asked if vendors should worry about the road AT&T has chosen. "Our partners are all brand names that are supporting this model."

Those remarks come after Ulf Ewaldsson, the head of Ericsson's new-look digital services business, last week dismissed suggestions that most telco software would be released into the open source community. (See Ericsson's Ewaldsson Takes Aim at Telco 'Conservatism'.)

In a conversation with Light Reading, he argued that such a development would see vendors disappear and force operators to build their own networks. "There is a tendency to think about doing that, but for the majority it is not close to being an option."

Asked to respond to those comments, Pacewicz cited the growing momentum behind ONAP, an open source initiative based partly on AT&T's ECOMP software platform and involving several other big-name telcos, including France's Orange (NYSE: FTE), BCE Inc. (Bell Canada) (NYSE/Toronto: BCE) and China's three national players.

"We do believe this is about transforming the industry and not about AT&T and that is why we opened it up," he says. "It is not just us contributing to the evolution of this orchestration -- ONAP continues to attract more carriers into it large and small … It is a move from a bottom-up application-based model to a top-down web approach."

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Even so, AT&T's role is clearly changing in a world of software and virtualization. During Light Reading's Big Communications Event last week in Austin, John Donovan, AT&T's chief technology officer, said the operator was now "doing traditionally vendor-led roles," with implications for its supplier relationships.

Could the development of its own virtual network functions (VNFs) be on the cards? (See AT&T's Donovan: Resistance to Change Is Futile .)

"We are not announcing any AT&T virtualized functions but the platform is very flexible and that opens it up to innovation," says Pacewicz. In the future, he acknowledges, that could potentially see both operators and enterprise customers developing their own VNFs.

AT&T's early success in the on-demand area clearly owes much to its vast resources, with some of these channeled into providing consulting support for customers making the on-demand transition.

"Migration is something we focus on and every customer has a unique set of requirements," says Pacewicz. "The consulting we do is key to creating a customer-specific plan."

Pacewicz says that once a device has been shipped to the customer premise it takes about 15 minutes to "rack and stack" it, 20 minutes to download software from the cloud and another 1.5 hours to test it.

"The whole process from ordering to deployment takes less than a month," he says. "In the old world you would be ordering multiple pieces of equipment and have multiple dispatches -- now it is just one x86 box connected to a number of virtualized machines."

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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