AT&T has been aggressively transforming its core network with software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV), gaining the ability to offer on-site infrastructure to enterprises in an innovative, simplified, and easy to consume model.
The resulting platform, AT&T FlexWareSM, provides best-in-class, virtualized network functions to businesses across the entire spectrum of the market. From Fortune 10 customers to single-site locations like law offices or retail stores—all while offering an alternative to traditional, single-purpose built network equipment models. SDN and NFV technology provides hardware and software independence with the value of automation. Moving to a software-based model allows business agility and automation. It is about transforming the network to meet the site-specific needs of each location.
SDxCentral: What advantages does FlexWare offer enterprises?
Rupesh Chokshi: AT&T FlexWare is a game-changing, market-leading platform for supporting business agility. We offer businesses three main advantages, starting with choice and flexibility in terms of how things are configured.
In FlexWare, routers, firewalls and other network functions are software-based and very modular, so businesses can mix and match what they need for their specific requirements. Because we’re moving from static to dynamic networks, services are available on-demand, and we boost enterprise agility with near real-time configuration and orchestration, and the ability to change and scale services quickly. That gives customers a very differentiated experience. Networking is cool again, thanks to this software-centric architecture that drives intelligent decision-making and behavior.
The second advantage is our ability to help drive out complexity from the networking equation —and therefore, cost. The result is improved TCO for most. This also comes from making the network software-centric, which allows us to manage the infrastructure in a platform-centric way, tailored to a businesses’ needs. So, if you have a single location, and you want to manage the routers, firewall and platform yourself, we can support that. Or if you have 200 or 500 locations globally across 200-plus countries and need us to manage it all, we can deliver that solution too, thanks to our extensive managed services options.
Third, we also see the shift taking place where more and more customers are moving applications to public and private clouds. FlexWare enables and accelerates that transformation. Customer traffic always flows from site-to-site in the network, but the bulk of traffic growth is actually site-to-cloud, as users consume cloud services, over-the-top (OTT) content or applications like. Those are mission-critical functions, so enabling the performance and quality of experience for the end user is very, very important. We support that.
What are the key technologies behind the FlexWare platform?
There’s a lot of buzz around SDN and NFV. FlexWare uses both, from a platform and solutions approach. With SDN we have the ability to control, orchestrate, manage and configure the software services that we make available in near real-time, and we drive value by automating that.
Meanwhile, NFV disrupts the traditional appliance model. NFV is a simpler way to buy, configure and test network functions. With NFV, software replaces these appliances and is easily downloaded and deployed to industry-standard customer premises equipment at different locations within the network, like data centers or remote offices. The result is that we can instantiate services globally, in seconds, with no need to swap out hardware.
How long will it take to deploy FlexWare, and do my employees need any special skills to use it?
FlexWare is designed to be easy to deploy and easy to manage. We can support locations around the globe for those who want to be hands-on with network management and engineering, but we also can manage and turn up the service so you don’t need specialized skills at all. In other words, we can customize the solution based on their knowledge level and business objectives.
We have been focused on improving the deployment experience for customers by providing professional services that includes orchestration and instantiation of the software. The goal is to simplify networking and drive some of the cost out for the end user.
Security is always a big concern for enterprises. What type of security does FlexWare offer?
Security is top of mind across the board, and we’ve built it into the platform in two areas.
For one, the FlexWare platform has security built in from a design implementation and best practices perspective. When we deploy our solution, all downloading and set-up is done with multiple authentication keys. So whether you’re in a location in the U.S., or Australia, or Germany, or anywhere else, we these features help provide security to devices from a software perspective. We also follow industry-best practices to help secure the virtual network functions (VNFs) themselves. We also work to secure and harden our virtual edge, so even if customers connect to the cloud via the public internet, we allow users to do what they need to do while helping to safeguard corporate networks.
We also offer number of security services on the customer side. We have software security VNFs, including firewalls, next-generation firewalls, URL filtering, intrusion prevention and detection, IP Sec tunnels into AWS, Azure and other clouds, and more. Our users have a wide range of choices and security options. Juniper Networks is a great collaborator of ours in this ecosystem, providing market-leading virtual routing and security functions.
What connectivity options are available?
AT&T FlexWare provides flexible, network-agnostic options for business networking. We’ve done a lot of work in this space since the launch of this service, and we continue to expand. Because we have a virtualized edge, we’re not constrained by our own footprint. We can implement this for customers who might have existing non-AT&T connectivity and where we don’t have network capabilities.
We are also uniquely positioned because we can offer both Layer 2 and Layer 3 connectivity options. Our virtualized edge works with AT&T VPN Layer 3 MPLS, AT&T Switched Ethernet, which is a Layer 2 VPN, and Layer 3 AT&T Dedicated Internet, not to mention third party MPLS and Internet.
Can you talk about the network function providers that you are working with?
We offer AT&T-certified virtual network functions from the best-of-breed vendors – AT&T FlexWare Applications. We have a very robust ecosystem of suppliers that we have publicly announced, ranging from industry leaders to new entrants. The whole objective is to provide a platform with global distribution, in order to bring innovation faster to our customer base. Our suppliers enable us to drive that pace and bring best-in-class offerings to businesses around the globe.
Why would a customer move to this virtualized model today instead of doing a traditional hardware refresh?
We see trends from customers where the value proposition is around future proofing. Most businesses are at a crossroads of wanting to enable a digitization strategy while positioning that investment for future scale. FlexWare’s virtual environment is built to be future-ready because there’s no requirement to make a three-year, five-year or seven-year commitment to proprietary hardware and software. You’re not going to be stuck with a choice and asset that seemed cutting-edge a few years ago but turned out not to be for the long term. M&A activity, the move to the cloud and the rapid change we see in how businesses operate have outstripped traditional networking capabilities.
Customers are moving away from being locked into a single vendor. This flexible software platform allows best of breed, changes over time based on business needs and vendor features. Time based functions. What if your company acquires another business? You can install a special purpose function (i.e. internal firewall) during a migration and then enhance or revise via software once the needs have changed or expanded.
With FlexWare, businesses simply choose which VNFs they want to run on that platform, and they can move things around and swap things out as needed. This is critical given that business needs are constantly and rapidly changing. The pivot we see in the marketplace is around business evolution and the flexibility to change or try new solutions during their service.
In the future, the concept of something being “software-defined” will extend to new things. Software defined wide area networking (SD-WAN) has already gained a lot of momentum—and I believe we will start to see momentum in SD LAN, SD branch, SD security, SD everything. If you then look at the different customer environments—retail, financial, industrial Internet of Things (IoT), there are hundreds of potential use cases. FlexWare provides the fundamental capabilities to support these, because it’s modular, customizable and on-demand.