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Q&A: Breaking down AT&T’s cloud services

Mon, 06/18/2012 - 2:58pm
Andrew Berg, Wireless Week

AT&T's Steve CanianoAs vice president of hosting and cloud services for AT&T, Steve Caniano knows a thing or two about how consumers, as well as businesses and their IT departments, view the cloud. He also knows how a major carrier like AT&T is leveraging this new technology in conjunction with high-end mobile devices and next-generation networks to deliver a whole new set of services and solutions to customers big and small.

Wireless Week recently spoke with Caniano about how the cloud is changing the way businesses, as well as consumers, view, access and interact with their important data. Below is an edited transcript of the discussion.

Wireless Week: How do you see the cloud and HTML5 affecting the consumer’s view of devices and operating systems?

Steve Caniano: We see three big dynamics coming together: proliferation of smart devices; broadband, both landline and wireless; and cloud. We really see these as the three legs of the stool, the platform on which so many companies are re-engineering their businesses. I think cloud and some of the HTML5 initiatives are very much a part of that, because what it does is it enables a new class of applications.

If you think of yourself in a consumer context – and certainly more and more that's becoming the expectation for folks in the business world, as well, if you think about consumerization of IT – your expectation is that you have access to applications that you need to make you more productive anywhere, anytime, on any device. To do that, you need those types of technologies. You need fast networks like LTE. You need smart devices. Ideally, something like HTML5 starts to make it easier for you to operate in a seamless fashion across multiple devices without having to customize to a particular device OS. And then you need cloud. Because what you need is a robust infrastructure and platform on which to run those apps, particularly with business apps.

That's kind of the crux of where I think you're seeing all AT&T investment going, in the business space for sure, around mobilizing customers’ business processes, enabling IP networks and tying that together with cloud, all in a service wrapper that can address their application needs. That's kind of where we see things headed.

WW: Is AT&T looking to compete for their customers’ content by offering a competitive cloud-based storage and backup option, or is that better left to over-the-top services?

Caniano: We absolutely do want to do that. When I mentioned before about building cloud into the network, it's things such as that that enable more capabilities to basically be “on-net.”

Storage is already built into our network and enables customers to securely leverage our network hubs, our data centers, for things like archiving and backup to the cloud in a secure manner.  In many cases, to do that over their private or virtual private networks – particularly if they're leveraging enterprise VPNs, where you don't want to expose that data to a public Internet type of network – you're going to want to move that around in a virtual, private way within your corporate firewall. And so having that capability available in a scalable, consumption-oriented fashion that's on the network is really the kind of thing that we're doing.

That's the heart of the value proposition, in terms of putting more and more mobile apps and mobile app platforms into our cloud, or our network, and then securing transactions across mobile devices of all types. It ranges from simple cases of secure data repositories that a number of customers look for – sort of business-grade Dropbox.

We’ve even used similar type solutions for our analyst events. We used to hand out binders with all the presentations and those sorts of things. We’ve now centralized all that to our cloud. And so when you come to one of our events, as a customer or key partner, you’re basically on your mobile device hooked into the AT&T cloud. We can now put not only presentations up there, but rich media up, videos, YouTube videos and demonstrations of services. So we can have that all securely shared across the work group.

Those kinds of capabilities are simple ones, but powerful ones that are starting to get enabled by the network-cloud combination. There are more sophisticated ones that I think are pretty interesting.

A great example there is what we’re doing in our medical imaging and information management for the healthcare industry. It’s one of the verticals that we’re very focused on. Historically, that’s kind of a legacy solution set that supports the healthcare provider for tracking MRIs and x-rays. Usually, if you’re the patient, it’s not unusual for you to be walking around carrying gigantic images of MRIs and x-rays from one provider to another. We’ve gone to a solution where you can securely house those images in the AT&T cloud and then have them viewed by the practitioners over a secure mobile device like a tablet.

Those kinds of cases are really starting to emerge. The mobility angle is really what’s driving the need for people to be able to access that information or repository, and the two really need to be tied together as a service.

WW: Do you have a feel for how IT departments are viewing the cloud?

Caniano: I think we’re still relatively early in what I would call the cloud revolution for the enterprise. I would tell you that there’s not an IT department or CIO out there that’s not actively developing their cloud strategy or implementing it in some way. But I think that’s happening in very different ways. You’ll hear a lot of noise, and quite frankly, I think a little bit of over-hype, around particularly the public cloud.

And I think there are a number of issues for businesses as they choose to adopt services. I think what you’ll see a business do, in terms of adoption, is it starts to get its own house in order first. It’ll build what’s often called a private cloud, and in some cases they do that with service providers like AT&T, and they’ll have us host a private cloud for them, which in essence is not a shared platform, but it’s one where they’re getting the maximum efficiency out of dedicated resources like technologies such as virtualization. I think that’s a natural first step, whether they have someone host it or they do it themselves.

Eventually that starts to run out of gas, and in particular where there are concerns with performance and security and control, the types of approaches we’ve taken would be on-net with the VPN-attached cloud. It’s a powerful approach because it eliminates a lot of those obstacles. It’s not sending data over the public Internet. It’s giving them control of a network that’s a lot more tunable and basically extending what they would think of as a private cloud into a virtual private cloud.

So, we see adoption happening in what I would call a hybrid model. Realistically, in the future, I think that’s the next wave that we’re going to see here is this whole hybrid architecture, where you have private clouds and virtual private clouds, and there will be some use of public services, as well, and the typical customer will probably have all of that in some shape or form.

I do think that’s a challenge for the IT department and the CIO, but the expectations have changed upon them, and their customers, the business users, are expecting a lot more velocity than has been the typical cycle time in IT for systems turnaround and are looking for scale and cost economies. A lot of that drives for a strategy that leads to cloud. The question is how do you do that in a way that works for your business?

WW: How does AT&T view the delivery of cloud-based apps and services to your customers?

Caniano: Basically, when we think about cloud services and we think about our network, we really think about the convergence of the two. In fact, we really think about network extending into the cloud. In fact, we're building cloud features into our network, such that customers can take advantage of things such as computing on the network as naturally as they would any other network feature. We're really giving them the opportunity to attach application-level capability onto their network, which we think is pretty unique and differentiating. It's a natural linkage, and really the heart of what we do, and it's building more and more capabilities on-net, as we like to think about it.

I wouldn’t overlook managed services and solutions. I think this is often underplayed when people talk about cloud, because I think they think of things like a public cloud, which is a more do-it-yourself scenario, especially if you move into the business customer space.

What we’ve found is that there is, if anything, an increased demand for managed services. Customers like cloud infrastructure, but cloud isn’t just about infrastructure. It’s about how do I leverage that infrastructure into solutions. So for example, customers who want backup are not looking for raw storage and having to figure out how to code at an interface level to that storage. They’re looking for a service that’s very much browser-oriented – point and click, set policies on what data I want to backup and when – and that’s a service, and that’s a managed service. I think that’s the dynamic that’s worth thinking about. Because we do see that as companies start to think about cloud infrastructure, they also have to start thinking about what services make sense on top of that.

If you believe my premise about the hybrid model, where you’ve got some sitting in the private and some across more of a hybrid model, you can see where the complexities of those services require an enterprise-grade service provider.

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