AT&T: Transition to SDN 'changing relationships' among vendors

DALLAS -- AT&T (NYSE: T) is transitioning to software-defined networks (SDN) perhaps more aggressively than any other U.S. operator. And Susan Johnson, the operator's senior vice president of global supply chain, said Tuesday that transition provides a way for AT&T to increase the number of vendors with which it does business.

The nation's second-largest carrier has said repeatedly that it aims to virtualize 75 percent of its network functions by 2020 to help speed the deployment of new services, make the allocation of network resources and bandwidth more dynamic and flexible, and reduce network costs by decoupling network software from proprietary hardware. Meanwhile, it doubled the amount of open source software it used it 2015, and is on track to have 50 percent of its software be open source by 2020.

"We're no longer interested in buying a box of proprietary hardware tied to proprietary software," Johnson told attendees at the annual event hosted by the Wireless Infrastructure Association, which rebranded this week from PCIA. "Not only is it a major shift for us but absolutely a major shift for the industry."

Indeed, carriers around the world are moving toward software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) as data traffic continues to ramp up on both mobile and wireline networks. Which means some of their suppliers will change as well.

Johnson explained that AT&T has worked in recent years to increase diversity among its partners, focusing on companies owned by members of one of four groups: women, minorities, service-disabled veterans and, most recently, LGBT. It spent $13.7 billion last year with diverse suppliers, marking 24 percent of its overall spend, and it offers diversity programs such as technical assistance and capacity-building, scholarships and mentoring, and a matchmaking program that partners diverse suppliers with other suppliers.

And AT&T's moves toward SDN provides a way for the carrier to increase its diversity efforts, potentially opening the door for new vendors that might be able to meet its changing needs more effectively than some established partners.

"As you can anticipate… the movement to software is changing relationships," Johnson said. "In some cases this has been a hard pivot" for longtime vendors.

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