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AT&T Spark highlights big changes in networking market

The AT&T Spark event showed more than the service provider's latest 5G technology. It also revealed how AT&T is redefining the role of networking vendors in its data centers.

SAN FRANCISCO -- AT&T is revamping more than its massive network to deliver high-speed, low-latency 5G services...

to businesses and consumers. The company is also remaking its relationship with networking vendors.

At the heart of the change is an open-source-first policy that has redefined the role of tech vendors that historically supplied the service provider with proprietary hardware and software. Now, AT&T is telling its suppliers, which include Ericsson, Nokia and Samsung, they have to become software developers and system integrators.

"There is a place for all of those hardware vendors in this new ecosystem to become integrators, to become hardeners," Amy Wheelus, vice president of AT&T's Network Cloud, said this week during an interview at the service provider's 5G AT&T Spark conference.

A hardener, which is a word Wheelus takes credit for, is a tech company that bolts features onto open source software, such as security and the management applications necessary to troubleshoot and fix network problems. Open source technology, such as OpenStack and Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), is the foundation of AT&T's Network Cloud, a cloud computing platform under construction to support future 5G applications.

Work like AT&T's, which is also underway in other service providers' data centers, is changing the relationship between carriers and networking suppliers, said Rajesh Ghai, an analyst at IDC.

"There's a big architectural change that is happening in telcos today," he said. "[And] there will be a huge systems integration and services component to it."

The wish list from AT&T Spark

What AT&T and other service providers want matters to networking vendors. That's because the suppliers' largest customer base -- enterprises -- is gradually trading their on-premises software for applications running in the cloud. The trend is shrinking the enterprise market, while increasing the buying clout of cloud providers -- such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft -- and service providers preparing for massive 5G rollouts.

As a result, AT&T, Vodafone, Verizon and other large service providers "are going to be much more prescriptive in how we want [technology] to evolve," Wheelus said.

For AT&T, that means commodity x86 hardware for running all Layer 4-7 network services, such as routing, load balancing and firewalls. AT&T is using ONAP to turn those services into virtualized network functions. Under the VNFs is the OpenStack cloud computing platform.

AT&T also wants makers of Layer 4-7 software to rethink the design of their products. For example, rather than selling load balancers for specific purposes, AT&T wants one product that it can configure for multiple tasks using open source orchestration tools, like Ansible and YAML.

"We don't need eight different load balancers from eight different companies," Wheelus said. "I need one load balancer, and then I fine-tune it."

5G hype vs. reality

Is [there] a hype cycle? Yeah, maybe it's a hype cycle.
Amy Wheelusvice president of AT&T's Network Cloud

While revamping its network for 5G, AT&T is rolling out 5G radios and other infrastructure in U.S. cities. By early next year, AT&T plans to have 19 cities wired for 5G, including Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

What's missing, however, are the applications that will deliver services that take advantage of 5G's unique capabilities. At Spark, AT&T and its partners showed marketing videos touting the potential for better home gaming and entertainment and innovation in medicine and manufacturing. But none of the services exist, and it's not clear how they will become a reality.

"Is [there] a hype cycle? Yeah, maybe it's a hype cycle," Wheelus said at AT&T Spark.

Nevertheless, AT&T claimed it is making progress on future products at its 5G development centers in Atlanta, Palo Alto, Calif., and Plano, Texas. The 5G infrastructure rolling out in the 19 cities is where AT&T will eventually test the services under development.

"We're just getting standards-based equipment [for the cities]," Wheelus said.

With so much experimentation underway, no one can predict whether the billions of dollars AT&T and the rest of the tech industry are spending on 5G will generate a healthy return on investment. One of the first indicators will be the success of mobile services built for 5G-enabled smartphones, which analysts predict will arrive in 2021.

The potentially more lucrative services for businesses -- the kind that is shown today in slick videos at 5G conferences -- will take longer to hit the market. Those products are unlikely to be widely available until 2025, analysts said.

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How is the role of networking vendors changing in your data centers?
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The problem with SDN/NFV over a 5G infrastructure is complexity. In fact, SDN/NFV for any network service is very complex and only the developers know for sure how everything works. This makes Service Assurance extremely difficult as the Tier3/4 staff will need to be populated with developers as opposed to traditional network engineers. 5G/mobility is already complex enough to troubleshoot on legacy equipment, now add stacks like Akraino/ONAP, etc, and it becomes even more difficult, if not impossible.
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