Are You in the Mood for Indigo? AT&T’s New Concept Could Change Your Mind!

When you have an architecture that set the standard for NFV, what do you to for an encore?  AT&T’s answer to that question is “Network 3.0 Indigo” or in short terms, just “Indigo”.  It’s another of those huge concepts that’s difficult to describe or to understand, and its sheer scope is certain to create healthy skepticism on whether AT&T can meet the goals.  Whatever happens in realization, though, Indigo is profoundly important because it frames operators’ views of the future exceptionally well.

Operators have consistently been telling me that their biggest problem with technology initiatives, from SDN and NFV to 5G, is that they seem to be presented as justified for their own sake.  What operators need is a business goal that can be met, an opportunity addressed, and in the complex world of networking most technologies proposed lack the critical property of scope.  They just don’t do the job by themselves, which is why integration is becoming such an issue.  AT&T advanced NFV with ECOMP by incorporating more into it, and they hope to do even more with Indigo.

Let’s start with a quote from AT&T’s Indigo vision statement: “The network of the future will be more than just another “G”, moving from 2G to 3G to 4G and beyond.  It’s about bundling all the network services and capabilities into a constantly evolving and improving platform powered by data. This is about bringing software defined networking and its orchestration capabilities together with big data and an emerging technology called microservices, where small, discrete, reusable capabilities can team up as needed to perform a task. And, yes, it’s about so-called ‘access’ technologies like 5G and our recently -announced Project AirGig. Put all that together, and you have a new way to think about the network.”

Feel better, more educated?  Most people who read the above statement don’t, so don’t feel inadequate.  In simple terms, what Indigo is about is creating agility and efficiency, which you’ll probably recognize as the two paramount (credible) NFV goals.  AT&T is making an important statement here, even if it’s not easy to parse.  The network isn’t going to evolve as a series of disconnected technical shifts, but as a result of serving a clear set of business requirements.  Given that, it makes no sense to keep on talking about “SDN” or “NFV” or “5G” as though they were the only games in town.  There has to be a holistic vision, which is why the quote above ends with the statement that Indigo is “a new way to think about the network.”  It’s about creating something that becomes what’s needed.

Faster access, which is pretty much all anyone thinks about these days when they hear about telecom changes, is rapidly reaching a point where further gains in performance will be difficult to notice.  I’ve said many times that most users could not actually exploit even 25 Mbps; you need multiple people sharing a connection to actually use that much.  AT&T correctly points out that at the point where more bits equals superior service becomes blasé, it’s the overall experience that counts.  Indigo is therefore an experience-based network model.

But, you might rightfully ask, what the heck is it technically?  The kind of detailed Indigo information that we all might like isn’t available, but it’s possible to interpret the high-level data AT&T has provided to gather some useful insight into their approach.  As you might expect from the notion of “experience-based” network services, Indigo steps out beyond connections, to an intermediary position that AT&T calls a “Data-Powered Community”.  Inside this new artifact is the usual access network options, and the now-common commitment to SDN, but there’s also identity management, AI, a data platform that in my view will emerge as the framework for AT&T’s IoT model, and the software orchestration and management tools that tie all this together.

From what I can see, the key technology concept in Indigo is the breaking down of monolithic software structures and service structures into microservices, which are then orchestrated (presumably using ECOMP).  Just as ECOMP can deploy an NFV-based service, it could deploy a function-based application.  Want an operations tool?  Compose it from microservices.  Want to sell a cloud service?  Compose it.  A Community in Indigo is an ad-hoc composition of functional and connection elements.

The Communities Indigo defines are the frameworks that house the customer experiences that they value.  That means that traditional networking ends up merging more with network-related features like agile bandwidth and connectivity, but also with cloud computing and applications.  I think Indigo is a promise that to AT&T, a virtual function and a cloud application will be faces of the same coin, and that services will use both of these two feature packages to add value for users and revenue for AT&T.

One important feature of Indigo is the ability to support services whose pieces are drawn from a variety of sources.  “Federation” isn’t just a matter of interworking connectivity services, it’s a full-blown trust management process that lets third-party partners create elements of services and publish them for composition.  This doesn’t mean that AT&T won’t offer their own advanced service features, but that they expect to have to augment what they can build by incorporating useful stuff from outside.

If you look at the use cases for Indigo that AT&T has already presented, you don’t see more than hint of what I’m describing.  There are four such use cases, and most of them are pretty pedestrian.  What’s really needed is a broader and clearer picture of this federation approach, and in particular examples of how it might be integrated with IoT services.  If there’s a giant revenue pie that AT&T needs to bite into, IoT will likely create it.  Given this, and given that AT&T cites IoT trends twice in its lead-in to justifying Indigo, it’s surprising that they don’t offer any IoT-specific or even related use cases.  In fact, beyond the two justifying mentions, IoT doesn’t appear in the rest of the AT&T technical document on Indigo.

Which, frankly, is my big concern about Indigo.  Yes, all the framing points AT&T makes about the evolution of services and service opportunity are true.  Yes, a framework that envelopes both connectivity and the experiences users want to be connected with is where we’re heading.  And, yes, it’s true that IoT services are still off in the future.  However, they are the big focus of opportunity and Indigo will stand or fail based on whether it supports IoT-related services well.  It’s IoT that offers AT&T and other operators an application so big that most competitors (including OTTs) will be afraid to capitalize it.  They can own IoT, if they really can frame it in Indigo terms.

Indigo’s greatest near-term contribution may well be its impact on ECOMP.  Universal orchestration and software decomposition to microservices would mean a significant enhancement to the ECOMP model of defining services and managing their lifecycle.  A broader goal for orchestration is critical for NFV’s success because the scope needed to deliver the business case is larger than the bite the NFV ISG has taken of the issues.  Indigo is big, which is a risk, but here, bigness could be a precursor to greatness.