Many of us have heard about virtualization as it applies to data centers. The idea is that software replicates and replaces special-purpose, physical hardware, so data centers are more flexible and cost-effective. At AT&T, we’re applying this approach to our global network. This shift – virtualization – is a transition to a software-defined network (SDN).  

But what does this mean for companies in Asia Pacific?

Tom Siracusa, executive director of AT&T Labs, was here in Singapore for the 2016 AT&T Technology Leaders Forum. We sat down with him to find out.

AT&T: What exactly is software-defined networking?

Siracusa: It's a new approach to network building. For more than a century, we’ve built telecom networks from the bottom up. We started with specialized, single-purpose hardware. Today, we can build from the top down – using software to provide functionality and scalability on inexpensive standard hardware.

If you’ve ever downloaded an app, you’ve already taken this approach. You used to have lots of specialized gadgets – a CD player, video game console, camera, tape recorder, fitness tracker, alarm clock and so on. Now, you have a few mobile apps on a single, standard device. You’ve turned several shelves of devices into cloud-based apps. That’s basically what we’re doing, but on a vast scale. We plan to virtualize 75% of our network by 2020, replacing acres of specialist switches, routers and other physical gear.

AT&T: Why should customers care?

Siracusa: When you rely on mobile apps instead of loads of physical equipment, you save time, money and physical space. You can upgrade easily without having to buy any new hardware. SDN will bring similar advantages.

Say you want to deploy a new router or firewall. With that functionality inside the network, we can make it available to you on-demand, so you won’t need to deploy hardware on-site. And the service will be available to you much more quickly. This deployment speed is vital to businesses. Perhaps you’re opening a new branch office in another country, or adding a new application, like telepresence, to your global network. You need extra capacity straight away.

Another aspect of speed is performance. You may need to add capacity so a particular application, like telepresence, runs efficiently. With SDN, you can do this on-demand. And because we’ll have this SDN infrastructure deployed across our network, we can give you the features you need on the infrastructure closest to you. This minimizes latency and maximizes performance. 

AT&T: How about security in SDN?

Siracusa: SDN also enhances security. Software lets us quickly deploy updates when we detect an attack. We can also isolate and contain problems more easily to better protect customers. In case of a Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack, scaling the network in near real time means less disruption.  We can deal with malicious traffic before it reaches your network.

AT&T: Is any of this available today, Tom?

Siracusa: Yes. Our Network on Demand platform is now available in the US. It uses software to add or change services, rather than hardware, which makes network service setup simpler and easier. This lets you easily order more ports, add or change services, and adjust bandwidth in near real time via an online portal.


Tom Siracusa, executive director of AT&T Labs