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Q: Just why are AT&T, banks snubbing kit from Cisco & co? A: Control

We drill into what's causing seismic shifts in the networking world

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Analysis Relationships between big data-center buyers and IT providers are dramatic, and on Monday AT&T strode onto the stage and bellowed out a great betrayal.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, AT&T's head of technology and network operations John Donovan was quoted as saying that the telco's Supplier Domain Program 2.0 "does save you money."

This, we imagine, has set off the gigantic red "Danger! Client Loss Event!" alarms at networking giant Cisco, as AT&T's new supplier program spends less on traditional networking hardware, more on cut-price alternatives, and ultimately reduces its $20bn-plus yearly capital expenditure habit.

The Supplier Domain Program 2.0 was announced in September 2013 as a way to help AT&T separate "hardware and software functionality" as well as "network control plane and forwarding planes" along with "improving management of functionality in the software layer."

Network industry watchers will recall that for the past year there's been a flurry of activity in the realm of software-defined networking and the use of commodity hardware.

Some startups, such as Cumulus Networks, have appeared on the scene using an open operating system for networking running on merchant silicon, and others, like Pluribus Networks, have sprung up with very advanced software on well-understood hardware. Customers have got into it as well, with Facebook launching a project to design some of its own switches.

Amazon.com, and by extension cloud provider Amazon Web Services, is designing its own networking switches to bring down costs and do away with what chief technology officer Werner Vogels called the "black box" within his company's data centers.

Google, meanwhile, has been designing its own networking gear for several years as well, we understand.

Now, according to the WSJ report and sources The Register has spoken to, telco giant AT&T is beginning a slow shift away from its dependence on traditional gear from Cisco and to a lesser extent Juniper, Arista, and Brocade.

Telcos are the lifeblood of Cisco and other traditional networking providers' businesses, as they buy very large quantities of equipment and tend to keep it in the production fleet for a long period of time. This makes for a heady combo of large sales, and even larger ongoing support fees.

For a telco as large and as influential as AT&T to have admitted to the WSJ that its new multi-supplier strategy is saving it money is a big deal. (And likely also a bit of leverage for price negotiations with Cisco.)

"They are trying to aggressively move to industry-standard hardware and away from large supplier lock-ins," one well-placed contact within the networking community confirmed to El Reg.

Another explained that they, and a number of large banks, are "definitely" moving away from the big suppliers.

The reasoning is the same as that found by Facebook, Google, and Amazon: control.

In a big data world, if you control the network you can better control the cost of transmitting data. You are also less likely to fall foul of the ever-shifting politics of the data-center industry.

One of the best ways to control cost is to have a diversity of suppliers, and it is this that motivates the move away from Cisco or Juniper or HP or whoever – if you can find a company to equip you with software, and another to equip you with some hardware that can be built by multiple suppliers perhaps in tandem, you can shield yourself from economic wobbles, and don't have to face price increases.

Cisco's response to these pressures has been to develop "Application Centric Infrastructure" – a new set of technologies that pair clever proprietary software with clever proprietary hardware.

The tech giant's belief, as told to El Reg, is that "maybe we are doing hardware-defined networking ... but if I can put that same box with better performance and better programmability in your data center, cheaper than a white box out of Taiwan, do you care?"

Evidently customers do. As AT&T says in its description of its new program, to achieve its dream of a more open and controllable network "will require some of AT&T’s current providers, but also will require some new providers with different skills and capabilities."

It's those skills and capabilities that Cisco is afraid of – for it can't offer those without chopping away at its current business. ®

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