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AT&T's Ianna: Last mile still the biggest challenge

SearchNetworking.com interviewed the president of AT&T's network services group, Frank Ianna, on the challenges around last mile technologies.

As the president of AT&T's network services group, Frank Ianna has had the mother of all networking jobs. He's spent the last 11 years running the world's largest voice and data network. SearchNetworking.com caught up with Ianna, who is retiring this fall, to discuss what he's learned in his time at the helm of AT&T's enormous network and to catch some parting words of wisdom.

What technologies have provided the most benefits or biggest changes since you started?
On the transmission side, fiber has added a lot more capacity than we ever had before, but that also created new challenges. What happens when you cut a fiber link? Suddenly we needed to be able to fix the link much more quickly, because the link was more important. With wave division multiplexing, we could send not just two waves, but 160. Along with that came optical switching. In addition to the move to data as a whole, the Internet protocol revolution has changed a lot. 

There are new failure modes to adjust to and different stresses on the organization. Does network convergence make sense for AT&T?
Yes, we believe that everything will be in IP format, but convergence will take place more slowly than most people believe. Most data networks have already migrated to packet. The key is being able to offer the same quality of service across IP networks. The last thing that needs to be brought onto the network is voice, which is very demanding. But it will take a long time for the end points -- the phones -- to be converted to IP. In fact, there are still local loops that are analog. 

The edge of the network moves the slowest, so convergence will take some time. Will IT people ever take Microsoft seriously in high performance networking situations?
Yes, you can never discount Microsoft on anything. It has an operating system that is standard on a lot of desktops, applications like Outlook and PowerPoint, and with the growth of Web-based applications, Microsoft will be a force to be reckoned with. 

What new networking technology will be the most challenging in the next two years?
The challenge that we face today is the same one we always faced and will face in the future, and that is the last mile of connectivity. That has always been the crux of most issues in terms of cost and reliability. Today it is where there are the highest costs and the least competition and the lowest bandwidth. There are a number of technologies that can address those issues. There is power line technology, Gigabit radio, Wi-Fi and others. There is no silver bullet. 

How has running the network today changed from when you started?
For starters, today there is more data on AT&T's network than there is voice traffic. Back in 1992, that was not the case. Now we have a domestic and international voice network as well as IP traffic, frame relay and ATM connections. The scope of what you have to pray over has increased several-fold. 

In your time at AT&T, what network situation was most stressful?
I've lived through a few network failures. In 1998, the frame relay failed for several hours, which was very stressful. With the new network there were different failure mechanisms. As we built out the network rapidly, we realized that we'd see failures we'd never seen before. Customers running critical applications expected four of five nines of reliability. We had to design for multiple layers of reliability. People's awareness of network failures was raised again after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In today's environment, consumers are looking at their own corporate networks and how to make them more reliable. 

What advice would you give to network managers as networks become more complex and more critical?
If you run a critical network for a large business, make sure you pick good network equipment vendors. You also need to have good insight into how all the pieces of the network operate from end-to-end. When something breaks, the end user doesn't care if it's the local area network, the wide area network or the metropolitan area network. You need to have good insight from end-to-end all the way to the desktop. 

What are your plans after AT&T?
I'm here until the end of September, then I'm going to take a little bit of time -- about 3 months -- to decide what to do. I might come back into the industry on the supply side. I have no interest in competing against AT&T, but I may work with IP PBXs. I believe they will be a big element in helping corporations build flexible communication structures.

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