AT&T ratchets up IP

AT&T is kicking its IP efforts up a notch with internet backbone and service upgrades that offer users more speed, security and flexibility.

The company is upgrading its internet backbone to support OC-192 - 10G-bps - from coast to coast. In addition, AT&T next month will announce public-key infrastructure (PKI) support for managed VPN service customers looking for enhanced security. AT&T is also testing new access services for its Integrated Network Connect (INC) offering.

Most of AT&T's internet backbone runs at OC-48 speeds today, with only one OC-192 connection from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to New York. AT&T was one of the first ISPs to roll out OC-192 support, but the company lost its edge by not moving as quickly as competitors Cable & Wireless PLC and UUNet, which have multiple OC-192 links up and running.

While AT&T lost its lead in the OC-192 race, it shouldn't affect the service provider's ability to keep up with bandwidth demands in the long run, says Lisa Pierce, director of telecommunications services at consulting firm Giga Information Group.

"As long as AT&T doesn't get a company like AOL dumping all of their traffic onto their network, then AT&T will have enough time to migrate to OC-192,"she says.

AT&T is trying to catch up with a national OC-192 deployment that could be complete as early as this year, according to Kathleen Earley, president of data and internet services. In fact, Earley says such progress is a must.

"With the kinds of orders that we're taking for OC-3 equivalents . . . we can't survive the year with OC-48," she says.

AT&T is reluctant to offer specifics on which cities will first be connected to AT&T's backbone via OC-192 links.

"We haven't announced our footprint entirely . . . but we have enough options on how to get this done coast to coast that it's just a matter of deploying the options," she says.

While UUNet and Cable & Wireless have said they are using Juniper Networks' M160 gigabit routers to upgrade their networks to OC-192, AT&T last week declined to share that information in a meeting with IDG. Earley says AT&T "will have terabit routers in place."

AT&T is in the process of deploying 16,500 miles of optical fiber from Lucent and Corning that can support OC-192 wavelengths over each strand of fibre, with up to 288 stands in large metropolitan areas, according to the company. This type of fibre has the capacity to support OC-768 speeds, although the electronics to support such speeds are not yet available.

Boosting bandwidth up to OC-192 is a plus for business users because high-speed services should be more readily available and operate with less congestion. However, while coast-to-coast OC-192 looks good on paper, AT&T has a difficult road ahead.

The company's first obstacle is time: The third quarter is quickly approaching, and as of now the company has in place only one short span of OC-192 that is supporting customer traffic. So either AT&T has a large portion of the networking gear in place and ready to go, or AT&T engineers are going to be working a lot of overtime to deliver the goods this year. Moreover, Earley points out that there are parts of the US - "in the square states" - where AT&T may not have pure OC-192 up and running as quickly as planned. In such cases where installation may be a problem, the company will instead overlay multiple OC-48 routers to support higher bandwidths and alternate routes for a short time, she says. This method is more costly to AT&T because more routers are need, but customers won't notice a difference, Earley says.

The availability of high-speed bandwidth is only one piece of the puzzle for businesses looking to send sensitive applications such as financial or human resource applications over the internet. That's why AT&T is deploying its own PKI, says Jonathan Cohen, director of advanced IP network services.

AT&T is rolling out a "commercial" PKI system that will allow the company to act as a digital certificate authority for its managed VPN customers. Cohen would not say which PKI system AT&T is deploying to support X.509 digital certificates, but did say the system will be completely managed by AT&T. Entrust and VeriSign are among the more popular PKI systems vendors.

PKI lets an ISP generate, distribute, authenticate and revoke digital certificates, which are used to either authenticate a user or a network. Each digital certificate, which is tied to a specific user or server, for example, is assigned a key. As a user tries to access his corporate VPN the PKI system compares that user's digital certificate to the information stored on the system.

The advantage of having an ISP offer a VPN and digital certificates is that it reduces the number of vendors involved, says Mark Buchard, an analyst with consulting firm Meta Group. Companies such as VeriSign that can act as a digital certificate authority have an edge in terms of experience, but there is nothing fundamental about PKI that would prevent AT&T from providing top-notch service, he says.

The majority of ISPs have avoided supporting PKI internally because managing such systems is complex. AT&T is believed to be one of only three ISPs supporting its own PKI, with Genuity (formerly GTE Internetworking) and smaller service provider Intelispan being the others.

AT&T will begin testing its system in July with service availability expected later this year, Cohen says.

AT&T is also testing new access services to bundle with its INC offering. INC lets business customers send voice and data traffic over a single T-1 circuit. Today the service is limited in that smaller businesses that may not need a T-1 can't access it, and those that want more than 1.544M-bps can't logically bundle T-1s to get more bandwidth.

AT&T is in the beginning stages of testing DSL and NxT-1 access to its INC service, says James Daugherty, product management director for ATM and frame relay services. In order to compete with other integrated access services such as Sprint ION, AT&T has to offer more bandwidth options.

Sprint ION for small-business users offers DSL access to Sprint's backbone today. The company also offers a Sprint ION service for enterprise business users who need T-1 speeds and above. Both services allow businesses to bundle voice and data on the same line and dynamically allocate bandwidth based on usage. But Sprint ION for small business is only available in eight cities.

AT&T declined to say when DSL or NxT-1 access to INC would be available.

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