Big Pond architecture needs a carrier-grade revamp, says Telstra exec

Any IT manager that has suffered the wrath of customers and staff during an unforseen outage should spare a thought for Telstra's battle-hardened head of network services, Michael Lawrey. Yet having endured Telstra's pillorying in the mainstream media over the Big Pond e-mail "brown out", Lawrey is surprisingly frank about what went wrong and why.

"A lot of the Big Pond platform and technology base was put in some time ago. Big Pond has grown [enormously]. We need to move that architecture closer to what I'd loosely term a carrier environment - rather than a traditional 'Internet enterprise' environment it has grown up in," he says, adding the difference between the two is "scalability, operability and the customer experience".

At the heart of the issue is that much of the Internet's delivery architecture was just never designed to do the sort of carrier-grade work it now does, says Lawrey, arguing that while Telstra's PSTN (public switched telephone network) has had some 80 years of fine-tuning, TCP/IP technology is growing up fast.

"The Internet space is relatively new and built on enterprise [rather than carrier]-grade equipment. Internet and e-mail was only ever a best effort, store-and-forward system. What we need to evolve to, if we are serious about having it as a mainstream communications mechanism for the future, is how we move the architecture closer to a carrier-grade.

"From a global perspective that's not just Telstra, that is all carriers. I'm not saying it will ever be carrier-grade, but it needs to move closer to that from the sort of architecture and environment we have today," Lawrey says.

While circumspect about what Telstra will do immediately, Lawrey says that "key vendors [have been called and] engaged in looking at the way forward to future-proof" against further outages, adding that Telstra CEO Ziggy Switkowski has committed to results by the first quarter of 2004.

As for the future of IP telephony (IPT), Lawrey says Telstra will forge ahead with solutions in the enterprise space such as the recent Westpac deal, but that any mass market conversion for private-line consumers is still a decade away - good news for revenue and shareholders at least.

Aside from the technological challenges of IPT, Telstra's 30-year survivor of the PMG Technician in Training program frankly admits it's as much about money as the technology.

"There are hundreds of views, but whether there is a sustainable business model is the key. That needs to be put in place. It's got to have a value proposition for the customer base, but it also has to make sure that it's sustainable [for carriers] at the end of the day. If [carriers] don't get a return on investment then you are not going to get people wanting to invest in communications networks," Lawrey said.

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