Intelligent Edge

Today’s guest is Jeff Taylor and we are talking about the Intelligent Edge. This is a conversation about what’s in development in telecommunications and what the future holds. Switching from a hardware model in telco to software takes a long while. Different carriers are working together more and more. In the end, consumers and businesses should benefit. Listen in to hear about what’s happening and what to expect in telco.


Jeff works for AT&T and runs sales for large business customers in and outside Michigan. He’s been with AT&T 19 yrs. Jeff went to work for a mid-sized SaaS startup for 2 years, but came back to AT&T and has been back for the last 2 ½ years. So, all told, he’s been with AT&T now for 22 years.

Yes, Jeff is a sales guy. He has some cool stuff to talk about today. One thing of note up front: Jeff doesn’t speak for AT&T itself. This talk is merely Jeff’s viewpoint of this technology shift based on factual, public info. Jeff’s views are not those of AT&T as a whole.

On snap, it’s ONAP


ONAP Overview

Today, Jeff is talking about the major changes coming to AT&T and other infrastructure providers around the world. These changes are really focused on improving the customer experience and it’s always been a sweet spot for Jeff in his career. It really changes the dynamic for customer networks in these technology shifts in how they access their networks and content. Whether it be public or private. This alludes partially to 5G which is a transport mechanism for these changes. It;s more about the backend transformation of the ecosystem currently in use. Big carriers working together so, customers can access virtual functions. Jeff is referring to this as the ONAP (Open Network Application Platform) and it’s what the intelligent edge is built on.

Remember, this goes beyond just AT&T. It’s far reaching and some changes may be subtle but, powerful.

Hardware to Software

AT&T is shifting from a hardware mentality to a software mentality. With ONAP, it’s a Linux based platform AT&T created called ECOMP. The idea is it would be an open platform usable by other telecoms in agreements. ONAP creates a common automated language when communicating with each other. This allows new orders and change orders to be automated vs. requiring a person to perform transactions and it’s just the beginning. It also allows companies to use open source ecosystems living in the common ECOMP environment to have additional services. The second release in this platform is called Beijing. There are likely already 2500+ developers righting code for the platform to further extend the intelligent edge functions.

So, this is a major initiative across  different careers. It’s not your standard handshake agreements or contracts. This is a significant interaction between the carriers. Beyond the standard services of a telco and into business application offerings through other 3rd parties riding on the platform. It also goes beyond your cell phone switching from Verizon to AT&T or vise versa. It goes beyond your cell phone changing carriers when you are out of service for one but, not another. This is potentially as important and significant enough to rival the initial deployment of telco services worldwide.

Carry the Carriers

Carriers want this to happen as well as it provides a value to their customers, which of course leads to more business. It’s not only faster delivery. Once in, it’s more flexible in how it can be used. About 65% of the current AT&T endpoints are compatible with the ONAP platform. An endpoint is defined as laptop, cell phone, a smart fridge, etc. So, really, any device on the network.

What drove the push for this change? Within AT&T, there was a shift from a switching/hardware company to a software company. John Donovan is the CEO of AT&T. He was challenged with significant increases in bandwidth demand. Instead of continuing to throw hardware at the problem of providing this demand for data, it made more sense to go the software route. The decision was by 2020, 75% of AT&T would be software based. In Jeff’s view, the launch of the iPhone in 2007 was what really spurred this change on. It changed the dynamic all around. Since 2007, there has been a 250,000% increase in traffic on the network for all providers. First chart at this link shows this. Don’t forget, AT&T was the exclusive provider of the iPhone for the first 3 years.

Get off the phone

Driving forces for the need to go the software direction vs. hardware is this need is going to continue to increase. There has to be some kind of infrastructure in place which can handle the load. The IOT (Internet of Things) space has to go somewhere and it’s to the intelligent edge. The best way to create a good mobile experience is to get it on to a fiber background vs. an antenna as soon as possible. IOT is going to represent a next wave of users. Currently, smartphones are fairly saturated. Companies are creating smart machines needing infrastructure. A network which can expand at the proper rate for those IOT devices is needed. Another statistic shows network demand is likely to increase by another tenfold in the next 3 years. This demand will be driven by IOT and mobile workers.

Devices are leveraging video even more and all this combined is pushing this forward. Streaming services also contribute to all this. AT&T’s recent acquisition of Time Warner is likely thinking along the same lines. If you are trying to be in this, ecosystem the endpoint is the place to be. When trying to help companies provide these types of services, it makes sense to create an end to end experience along the way.

Smart Nodes

intelligent edge networkingThe concept of smart nodes is these carriers have all these CO (Central Offices) in their footprint. These COs need to be as close to the endpoint as possible to get the customer off the antenna. So, the concept of the smart node is made possible with fiber being deployed to the AT&T towers and COs. Making those points smaller and more efficient allows the smart nodes to be deployed. Deployments of these smart nodes is currently underway. There is a book “Building the network of the future.” It’s co-authored by John Donovan.  AT&T has about 5000 COs globally. It’s heavy lifting to switch those out with smart nodes. AT&T is on track to hit 75% of all smart nodes out there by 2020.

From a consumer perspective, white boxes will likely be deployed at the consumer and business level. These would potentially replace routers. These would be used for deployment of services to the endpoints. These devices will be connected in various ways and 5G will likely be used for part of the connectivity. 5G is underestimated in its impact currently. Jeff says one executive in AT&T believes 5G is likely to be the next electricity. 5G’s power will be less about speed and more about low latency. One statistic states the human brain takes 13ms to process. In the labs and field tests, 5G is far past this. 8ms has been recorded. Latency is important for IOT devices. Such as automated vehicles. That lowest latency possible is needed for the decisions the automated car needs to make to provide a safe environment.

ONAP is the macro carrier to carrier piece, it will enable all this. The software core in the intelligent edge with the 5G low latency will make this all possible.

Virtual Functions

What other functions can businesses and consumers expect in these intelligent edge items? We are just now starting to see these options out there. These enable a business to consolidate things into a single white box to perform multiple functions. It simplifies the infrastructure at the end point and provides multiple ways to connect to it. The virtual functions will be able to live in the network. This will enable more thin clients at the customer sites if desired.

These services also further enhance the cloud options available to businesses. The ability to centrally manage these services in cloud environments and rollout through the same environment will give a diversity of options and a smaller footprint. Wireless 5G could be used for backups for example. Installing fiber is still there of course and just as important. White boxes will be used for much of this. The white box is usually a no name branding device which can act as the connect point for consumers and businesses. Similar to how a generic drug is cheaper that the brand name, it’s similar for white box devices.

The network will change and evolve over the next 18 months at a rapid clip. Services such as SDWAN will be deployed with these intelligent edge services as well. The future is once the ecosystem is created, you have mailability for different services and you will see an explosion of white boxes. So, the nature of routers and WANs will change entirely.

Software Telco

For AT&T, it’s becoming more of a software company. For Jeff, the impact is it’s an exciting story to tell. Getting fiber to customer locations was the first step for enablement. The availability of high speed wireless as a backup is a good story to tell. But, flexibility to Jeff’s customers with the intelligent edge is the big benefit.intelligent edge

Is there an expansion of bodies needed in maintenance and support for all this? The 5G deployment required 60,000 white boxes. So, there will be work. Just a different type of work. Customers will be able to manage these services differently is all. It will become more efficient overall…or at least that is the hope.

Security needed

The security implication of all this is security will be more heightened with the intelligent edge. Business customers don’t quite understand the vulnerability on their network. But, will all these different devices, it does require a sound security standard for the business network. You have to judge the content each device really needs. AT&T leverages a lot of partners for this to assist customers. Alien Vault (a small security company) was acquired by AT&T and is an option for small and medium businesses for IT security management.

Future Challenge

What’s the biggest challenge in the future? Maintaining control of the end devices and maintaining the security is a big challenge. IT people letting go of the propriety hardware is also going to be difficult when going towards a white box. Smaller niche players will likely come out with different devices for these white boxes.

This is all just the tip of iceberg with what is happening with the Intelligent Edge. It will come to fruition over the next 5-10 years. However, it will likely happen a lot faster.

IT/Geek Speak this episode:

  • Network Virtual Functions – Currently, there are different pieces of physical devices on a network which perform different tasks. A route (for internet,) a server (for holding files or an application,) or phone systems, etc. Virtualization for these physical devices means they can all run on a single device OR through a service which links back to the internet. So, you save space and complexity.
  • IOT – Internet of Things. More and more devices, small and large, are connecting to the internet. So many, they have their own term…IOT. So, your smart watch, a smart fridge, a sensor for a car, etc.
  • Echosystem or ecosystem – A group of devices or services which coexist and hopefully, work together.
  • Smart node – In this conversation, a device used in the telecommunications space to interconnect many different connection points. This device uses software to rapidly determine where to route traffic efficiently and can offer more options than a standard telcom steel box you see at the side of the road.


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