From the noughts to the tens: another decade of transition

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Joe Weinman looks ahead to assess what the coming decade will bring in the communications sector. Co-sponsored feature: AT&T 



Ten years ago, the world watched with concern as the clock struck midnight, ushering in Y2K. Fears were that critical computer systems would fail, bringing down telecommunications networks, power grids, and perhaps even nuclear power plant safety systems.

While nothing much appeared to happen that New Year’s Eve, in fact, a revolution was underway with the beginnings of web 2.0, e-commerce, cloud computing, high definition video, 3G networks and many other technologies that we now take for granted. This perhaps illustrates the nature of change: while the sudden impact that many feared never occurred, a much more dramatic and compelling change did, perhaps unnoticed in the same way that fish don’t ponder that the water that they are swimming in is gradually warming.

As we transition from the ‘noughts’ to the “tens”, it’s time to consider what transitions global telecoms’ businesses are now undergoing, as well as the forces driving those transitions and shifts in the communications, media, and entertainment ecosystem.



The end of custom hardware

If one thing defined telecommunications for over a century, it was purpose-built hardware. The original telephone exchange was built from carriage bolts, teapots, and wire from bustles (the bell-shaped structural framework under skirts of the late 1800s). However, the same could be said of 5ESS and 4ESS Electronic Switching Systems, PBXs such as Dimension and System 75, video conferencing bridges, SAN switches or network routers. The design philosophy was the same: an engineering team of hundreds or thousands of people would design cabinets, line cards, motherboards, circuits, ASICs, and even connectors, often from scratch.

Now we have seen a transition of voice communications to soft switches and unified communications platforms such as AT&T Connect. PBXs have become either open source software or modular software components residing on real-time hypervisors. WAN accelerators have moved from appliances to client software on the client side, and in some cases are migrating from dedicated servers to cloud-runnable data centre software. Finally, while multi-terabit carrier routing systems still may be hardware-based, open source routing, firewall, and VPN software is beginning to make serious inroads at speeds up to tens of gigabits per second, both in appliances and as pure software.

Ultimately, this means the culmination of a dramatic shift in the industry, from custom hardware design to custom software assembly for commercial off-the-shelf servers and storage. This means that ‘telecommunications manufacturers’ now include the open source community, and new entrants that are not traditional telcos are able to offer services such as voice by developing software rather than having vertically integrated manufacturing or even telecom equipment manufacturer relationships. While in many cases they may not currently have the reliability or mean opinion score of even analogue circuit-switched telephony, they have without a doubt been gaining share and have been evolving to video as well.

For telcos, it means that they need to be able to successfully migrate to this new, software-based world, or risk being bypassed in this next decade. AT&T, for one, is building on not only its telecommunications heritage, but also its world-class web hosting and applications management expertise to offer next generation voice and video networking services on top of its globally accessible Synaptic Hosting, Compute-as-a-Service and global service delivery node infrastructure.



The open platform

Another marker of the twentieth century was the unhurried pace of service development within the telco. Services such as call waiting and call forwarding were developed by internal organisations and standards bodies over many years, with lengthy research, planning, and certification processes. That era is over. The icon of the new world is the app store, with tens or hundreds of thousands of apps built by third parties using software development kits and public application programming interfaces sold in volumes measured in the billions. Rather than one product being built, it is the survival of the fittest applications produced by the developer community.

Mandatory competencies, then, have shifted from internal development of new services to the provisioning of platforms, the definition of APIs and development frameworks, the nurturance of developer ecosystems, and the deployment of micro-payment facilities. Determining whether to be fully open to any application or to address quality, cultural and security standards makes this challenge even more complex.

At AT&T, we have focused on exposing unique network functionality, such as SMS messaging to a developer community of tens of thousands of developers. A portal (developer.att.com) enables access to a certified solutions catalogue, onboarding tools, community forums, blogs, analytics, and training. We have also provided special functions such as the AT&T Mobile Enterprise Applications Platform, which enables rapid deployment of applications to multiple target devices. Our Common Architecture for Real-Time Services (CARTS) provides a service delivery platform not only for our own use, but, through a secure external application gateway, to enterprises or third parties who wish to develop enhanced functionality.



The connected world

It’s hardly a secret that the world has become much more interconnected. Whether it’s the contagion of the global credit crunch or the continued rise of the BRIC/K (Brazil, Russia, India, and China, sometimes including Korea and Indonesia) countries, goods, services, capital and information flows have massively increased between trade partners.

This tight degree of interconnection offers numerous benefits, thanks to David Ricardo’s Theory of Comparative Advantage. In a nutshell, it says that it even if a country has absolute advantage in productivity of all goods and services, trade is still beneficial between any two countries due to relative, or ‘comparative’ advantages, where each country focuses not on what it can do better, but what it can do best.

However, this interconnection is not without risk, as subsea cable cuts off the coast of Taiwan due to earthquakes and Mediterranean cable cuts due to fishing boats have shown.

In AT&T’s case, multi-billion dollar capital investments and commitments for indefeasible rights of use in subsea cable systems and related global network infrastructure have now created an enormously resilient mesh infrastructure. MPLS Fast Re-Route for VPN services layered on top of a resilient photonic mesh with multi-degree reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexors provides for extremely high availability of global connectivity. Enterprises, systems integrators, and global and regional operators count on AT&T, the world’s largest telecommunications provider (by revenue) and a recognised global leader in enterprise telecommunications and wholesale.

For example, analyst firm Forrester Research recently published its assessment of various Managed Global MPLS Services, stating that “AT&T received the highest overall score…Its main strength lies in its strategy, including the strongest go-to-market strategy for global MNCs with advanced networking needs.”



Converged devices, converged networks, converged services

At the turn of the millennium, voice devices such as wired phones or mobile cellular phones used circuit-switched networks to access “cloud-based” voice telephony switches. Similarly, data devices such as PCs and departmental servers used data networks such as Frame Relay and ATM to access enterprise servers; enterprise arrays used storage area networks such as Fibre Channel over metro-area Dense Wave Division Multiplexing networks to synchronously mirror data to remote arrays. Video endpoints used ISDN to link to video switches and bridges.

That era is now coming to a close, as devices, networks, and cloud services all converge. Converged devices such as smartphones, netbooks, laptops and telepresence endpoints are capable of voice, data, and video. Converged networks connect these devices to each other and cloud services, using IP/MPLS VPNs such as AVPN (AT&T VPN) services, that offer quality of service via class of service marking, shaping, and policing. Converged applications for unified communications, such as AT&T Connect, reside on cloud servers. Even when not fully converged, platforms, service-oriented architectures, and loosely-coupled user-driven mashups provide for a tighter degree of multi-modal device integration.




The integrated provider

Given all this, the telco of the “tens” will not look like the telco of the ‘noughts.’ The telco must offer voice, video, and data services to a broad variety of wired and wireless devices, and provide global access through broad country reach and depth not only of wireline services but Wi-Fi, 3G, and soon 4G. And, the telco of this new decade must also have the ability to run voice, data, and video applications as software on a globally distributed platform that uses virtualisation and dynamic resource allocation to reallocate capacity in real-time to platform-enabled applications. At AT&T, we believe we are successfully making this critically imperative transition and are excited about the promise of the coming decade. GTB


Joe Weinman works in Strategy and Business Development, AT&T Business Solutions

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