Web Informant #336, 9 July 2003:

Inside the labs at Bell Labs




It has been over a decade since I have visited Bell Labs and I am glad that I had an opportunity to return this week. It is a curious place. It is the home of such diverse inventions as the laser, the princess phone, and the first Telestar communications satellite -- all things that have fond memories from my childhood, I should point out. It still is a hotbed of new ideas and products. When I was last there it was in its heyday, humming with activity and the proud jewel in the crown of an unregulated monopolist AT&T. This was a company that spanned the globe and was the single phone company for us all. Alas, those simple days are gone and now we have, thanks to deregulation, a more confusing telecommunications landscape.


Ironically, my AT&T cell phone didn't have any service inside this bastion of what once was the phone company's ultimate think tank. But that was okay -- it gave me a chance to focus on the demos and what I saw was plenty of cool stuff. What still permeates the place is a sense of building products that are rock solid and just don't break, what we now call carrier-class equipment. It is too bad that this is such a well-kept secret. Perhaps if more vendors emulated this philosophy and actually delivered on this level of quality we would be better served and our industry would be in better shape.


This lack of marketing is just one of many contrasts that is part of the new Lucent, and perhaps their biggest challenge. They are still moving up the VAR learning curve and have just a few key business partners, but some of them quite large like Northrup and handle a sizable government customer base. While they have all the major carriers as customers, their penetration into the corporate enterprise isn't anywhere near what Cisco has done. Their products aren't adorned with a lot of fluff, and some of them look downright dowdy. But behind their plain Jane exteriors lies some solid stuff. And given their Bell heritage, they have the ability to stuff an amazing amount of capacity into an ordinary twisted pair of wires, the stuff that typically is all most of us have connecting our homes to the rest of the world.


Interestingly, the lucent.com Web site is a mirror of this "We don't have to market ourselves. We are the phone company's technology supplier and we don’t care" attitude. As a public service I will provide a set of links to various pages that pinpoint the products I saw. Because their URLs are huge, I will use the tinyurl service to make them easier to place in this document. (If you have never seen this service, it is as simple as can be: you cut and paste a humongous URL into their form, and they produce something that is just a few characters and will hopefully be around a while.)


Anyway, enough of the corporate politics. Let's go inside the lab. The Next Generation Networking lab is a fancy place. It is part movie set -- with the requisite stage lighting and world's fair exhibit-quality feel to the place. I kept looking around and waiting for the audio-animatronic Mr. Lincoln to peek out from behind one of the 19-inch racks, or the chairs to start moving on some guided track. But there is more to the fancy digs. It is also part client demonstration area so VARs can bring in their potential customers and show them that all this Lucent stuff actually works.  The lab is also part interoperability proving grounds for new communications and networking technologies, and the engineers were hard at work hooking up stuff and doing tests in the part of the lab that had regular cubicles and workbenches.


I got a chance to see six different demos and meet about a dozen different people that maintain the labs. It is set up for visitors to see what Lucent can do, but it is also a working lab that I would die for -- with tens of millions of dollars of gear from a wide variety of vendors that cover all kinds of voice and data networking technologies. Unbelievably, I had it all to myself for the better part of the day, and I could have spent a week there looking at how they did some of the stuff they showed me. (I am one of those people that like to look behind the wiring closet to see how everything is connected and where the real wires go. Yeah, I know I am a bit strange. But you can see how I would get excited at a place like the NGN labs.)


One demo that I saw was of Lucent's VPN Firewall Bricks. What was impressive about this was that they are designed for companies that have to manage tens or hundreds or thousands of firewalls and VPN connections. They showed me how a matched pair of Bricks could act as a redundant cluster and failover while a Mary Poppins video continued to play without missing a beat in the video stream.



Then I saw a DSL provisioning demo that was very impressive. The hard part about dealing with DSL is the ISP has to get the service set up properly once the customer gets his or her DSL modem. The lab guys showed me an automated provisioning process, whereby the modem downloads its firmware, reboots, and gets setup and ready to use, without the customer having to do anything other than plug it into the circuit. This uses the CellPipe line of equipment, and what Lucent calls their Turn-Up services.



Of course, there were plenty of voice technologies that were on display, given Lucent's heritage. What impressed me was their ClientCare Services that handled a virtual call center, whereby operators can be standing by in the comfort of their own homes and still be connected to the greater corporate data center and transfer calls amongst themselves as easily as if they were in a row of adjoining cubicles. One of the VARs I met at our annual VAR500 dinner is running a business doing exactly this, and can turn up hundreds of part-time agents within a few hours to handle peak loads or anticipated new marketing campaigns for his customers.



Another voice technology that works with their IP Centrex line is called Enhanced Business Services. If you have seen those ads for AT&T's GPRS "m life" services where you can have your callers find you and add integration with contact management and Web-based configuration utilities. I wish we could add these services to our phone system here at CMP, it would make us all more productive.



This just gives you a small taste of what is going on at Lucent. I came away feeling excited and energized by what they had to show me, and hope that they can get the word out and energize some of their partners as well.


Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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