Q&A: AT&T's Pacewicz says more work needs to be done on standardizing VNFs

Roman/AT&T
Roman Pacewicz, AT&T's chief product officer, says the industry still needs to work on the standardization of VNFs. (FierceTelecom)

While there has been some progress in regards to standardizing virtual network functions (VNFs), they are still not living up to their full potential, according to AT&T's Roman Pacewicz.

Pacewicz, AT&T's chief product officer, spoke to FierceTelecom on the sidelines of last month's MEF18 conference in Los Angeles about the status of VNFs. He also spoke about the impact of AT&T's purchase this past summer of cybersecurity company AlienVault.

Commercial VNFs, as opposed to open source VNFs, from vendors have been a particular sticking point for service providers that are trying to reap the benefits of NFV. To date, vendors' VNFs come in too many flavors, which means service providers have to configure, test, scale and rebuild every VNF prior to onboarding them.

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AT&T first announced the AlienVault deal in July and then wrapped up the purchase a month later. AlienVault develops tools that identify and manage cyberattacks through its Unified Security Management (USM) platform. It also hosts an online community forum called Open Threat Exchange (OTX) that lets security professionals and researchers share and report information on threats. The USM platform combines security capabilities with expert threat intelligence that is updated every 30 minutes with data from OTX that has been analyzed and classified by the AlienVault Labs team.

In this Q&A, which was edited for clarity and length, Pacewicz talks about AT&T's use of VNFs and the integration of AlienVault into AT&T's security portfolio.

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FierceTelecom: Can you talk about AT&T's use of VNFs?

Roman Pacewicz: That's something we've been commercially deploying for years, and it's one of our major differentiators. Our strategy is to disaggregate the appliance model and create a cloud-based networking core network, which we've been evolving to over the last four years. That's the software-centric, SDN-enabled core infrastructure where network functions are virtualized on a distributed, network-centric cloud zone infrastructure. We've been public about the fact that by 2020, 75% of our network functions will be in the virtualized cloud model. The architecture that is being deployed, from our perspective, enables us to support the growth we've seen on the network. It's a much more scalable model. Since 2007, we've seen 360,000% growth on our network, and this architecture's much more scalable.

But it also enables us to deliver more flexible services—virtualized services—and benefits customers in many ways. Our FlexWare strategy is an extension of that concept to the customer premise. With FlexWare, we're virtualizing the networking on a customer premise, and the VNFs are the functions that could be pushed onto the device. Does the customer want a certain Juniper router or a Cisco router software push? Do they want Checkpoint, Palo Alto Networks or Fortinet firewall services or security services? Unified threat management security services? It's their choice. Do they want a WAN accelerator? Do they want SD-WAN? With this kind of model you're not deploying appliances, you're pushing software. You're service chaining the software. Customers really like that because they're not locked into any proprietary technology. They're able to mix and match technologies. They're able to buy network functions over short periods of time or longer periods of time.

I'll tell you probably the biggest benefit is the fact, from an ecosystem perspective, it that this just opens up innovation to many more companies. When things are closed, when hardware and software is closed, there's less innovation. Innovation opens up when you have a more open platform, from a hardware perspective and a software perspective. VNFs can be deployed in our wired network, wireless network, which is critical under the 5G evolution strategy that we have, or on a customer premise, which is part of our SD-WAN or our FlexWare product.

FierceTelecom: Has the industry done enough to make the VNFs more standard across the board?

Pacewicz: I don't think we're done. I think there's still more work that the industry has to do around how these VNFs snap into a platform. Right now, there is still not the level of standardization that the industry needs. Part of the (MEF) SD-WAN standards is to at least address VNFS for that part of the networking market. But if we had more standardized approaches it would be just easier to snap these things in.

FierceTelecom: But that's part of what ONAP is doing in regards to VNFs, right?

Pacewicz: Yeah, it is. But I'm saying there's more progress that needs to be made. ONAP and MEF are working on some standardization that will help, but a lot more progress is still required.

FierceTelecom: Can you talk about security in general for AT&T, and your company's purchase of AlienVault?

Pacewicz: Security is a very fast growing product for us. AlienVault is part of our strategy to create security solutions that are intelligent. One of the challenges many of our customers face is that they actually have too much data. They have too many false positives. They don't know which threat is real and which one's not. Our strategy is to provide insight through a threat management capability. We've had a product called Threat Manager for a long time. Now with the acquisition of AlienVault, we're creating even greater capability to detect the threats. We're using third-party data and customer data to analyze and detect what's a real threat, and what's not. The AlienVault technology helps automate the collection of threat data from various appliances that the customer has.

When we think about security, we think about it from, "Hey, let's get insight into where the threats are emanating, and then use that information to mitigate them." What our customers tell us is the biggest challenge they have is they have a lot of point solutions, but these point solutions are very difficult to interrelate and correlate and figure out which ones they should act upon, which ones they shouldn't, and how they should act upon them. That's really what this brings together.

We're really excited about the AlienVault acquisition and its integration into our security portfolio. Again, the core of our strategy is to provide insight. Then from that insight, trigger mitigation across the infrastructure that a customer might have.