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The Wall Street Journal reported on December 16 that AT&T intends to have 75 percent of its network under Software Defined Networking (SDN) control by 2020. John Donovan, senior executive vice president of AT&T Technology and Operations said that AT&T moved from broad declarations about SDN to very specific operational planning in 2014. Yet, the hardest part of the transition to SDN will not be the platforms and technology. Numerous trials have proven the soundness of the technology, architectures and configurations. Standards are being defined that will enable operators to scale rapidly and commoditize critical software elements. The challenge – and it’s a big one – will be engaging the customer-facing parts of the business and providing them with the tools they need to offer, order, provision, manage, deliver, and support SDN-delivered products.
Start With the Customers
As difficult as it can be to understand and optimize business processes, there is a tremendous amount of value gained by leaving the cubicle behind in order to spend time with the people closest to customers and users in order to get a feel for what they do and how . What processes do they actually use? How much of their work is a workaround forced by inflexible systems and workflows? What behaviors are incentivized? Where are the difficulties and disconnects? This may seem trivial, but rarely do decision makers spend time on the front lines in contact centers or retail stores.
The breadth and depth of what will be required of customer support staff, provisioners, network managers, technicians, and engineers is rapidly exceeding the ability of an individual, regardless of skills, to process. Existing systems point users to data and tools, but provide precious few answers to those on the front line. There is still way too much reliance on an individual’s ability to search for the right answers, whether configuring services for customers or solving problems for callers.
The need for automation is obvious, but the implementation of system-wide intelligence is much trickier. This is less about big data and analytics, although those technologies come into play. Rather it is more about deriving a level of understanding from the available data and using it to make decisions, trigger actions, and monitor results. Every manual interaction with a system that can be eliminated should be eliminated so that the people closest to the customers can spend their time working with customers rather than searching for answers.
So much of what IT and network technologists do adds to the operational workload rather than alleviating it. More systems, more data, more links, more icons, more dashboards filled with uncorrelated information. All of this puts a tremendous strain on the people whose primary job is - or should be - to serve the customer. SDN, at least in the early stages, may only exacerbate this situation. Whether a CSP is ready to adopt SDN, therefore, is based less on network readiness, and more on the organizations readiness as a whole to digest, harness and support this new technology while not further distancing itself from its customers by exposing them to more complexity.
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