AT&T wants cool apps from open-source developers

AT&T is breaking away from proprietary hardware and software

AT&T wants to tap the open-source community to develop cool applications for connected wearables, mobile devices, home appliances and cars.

The company is taking employee suggestions for applications and rapidly prototyping the most popular ones, which are then considered for commercial use. The program involves outreach to external developers by opening up APIs (application programming interfaces) to help turn the prototypes into products.

Open-source developers will play an important role in creating apps, policy and management tools, said Marian Croak, senior vice president of applications and services infrastructure at the company. AT&T wants to orchestrate data transfer for sensors and mobile devices over its wired and wireless networks, she said.

"We're working with the outside development community so they can innovate as well," Croak said. "We're not a company that believes we can do it all ourselves."

AT&T demonstrated the sort of innovative applications the program embraces at an event in New York last week. The most interesting was smart luggage that can be tracked in real time via mobile devices. Another product was a vehicle sensor that can automatically switch on a household's air conditioning, shut off its security system or switch lights on when a car pulls into the driveway. Researchers also talked about an intelligent health wristband that could automatically crank up an air conditioner to lower temperature depending on pulse rate. Many of the applications shown were conceived internally, but developed with contributions from the open-source community.

"We do very rapid prototyping. The ones that look most promising go right into the production and realization process," Croak said.

The company has a rich history of innovation that encompasses Bell Labs and the AT&T Foundry, which has developed security, tracking, authentication, translation and video delivery applications for use on the network.

Over time, AT&T intends to open up more of its network to external developers to build such services. Croak gave an example of a customized application in which a parent disables text messaging on a mobile phone when a child is driving. That would require defining the policy and application orchestration engines for an action to take effect, depending on location and circumstance.

Companies will also be able to assign specific levels of bandwidth to applications or departments as AT&T expands capacity and changes its network topology to create a distributed communication system.

"We're building it in a way so that we'll have a repository of service and network functions almost like in a catalog that you as an outsider .... can take and reuse those objects and build and connect them in a way to compose your own service set," Croak said.

Croak noted that AT&T stepped up its collaboration with the open-source community when it started virtualizing its network through software-defined networking. SDN allows for the addition of users and services through software rather than manual changes to hardware, making more efficient use of network bandwidth.

"It's very extensive technology developed over time," Croak said. "It used to take us months and years sometimes to deploy new services because of their complexity. So we're decomposing all that complexity and putting it in a virtual state so it becomes functions that people can easily put together using tools that we've developed."

AT&T has established a six-year plan to overhaul its network and associated hardware.

"One of the things that we'll be doing is having a programmable controller. With that controller if you're running an application and see it's a big hit and you suddenly need additional capacity, you'll be able to spin off a virtual machine and replicate those service functions very quickly, in a matter of minutes," Croak said.

AT&T is also moving from proprietary hardware and software to industry-standard hardware on which open-source software can be easily deployed. The controller will sit at the network layer.

"Right now it can take us anywhere from 12 to 18 months -- depending on the complexity of the application -- to deploy capacity. In this new model where you have a programmable controller, you can spin off new capacity within minutes," Croak said.

In some ways, AT&T's SDN approach resembles data centers using a cloud model to centralize applications over distributed computing environments. But faster response time matters with network-hosted applications and services, Croak said.

"We're working with the open-source community to help them understand there are different requirements that need to be embedded ... to take care of sensitivities related to real-time applications. I think they are getting it," Croak said.

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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