An insight into networking and emerging technologies with Brian Levy

We interviewed Brian Levy – Former Chief Technology Officer EMEA at Brocade and Strategic Advisor for the TM Forum and we talked about his impressive career so far, his thoughts about emerging technologies such as SDN/NFV and the future of the networking industry.

Brian has more than 40 years of experience, which gives him a tremendous insight in the technology and Industry evolution. He has a rich background working as CTO at renowned companies such as AT&T, BT, HP, Juniper and Brocade and is an expert on SDN/NFV technologies and 5G technologies.

Keep reading to find out more about Brian Levy, his expertise, his view on emerging technologies and the role of Network Engineers in the industry.

Brian has seen many developments in the tech industry happen when he stated back in 1970 we still had electro-mechanical telephone exchanges. There was a cacophony of noise as motor driven switches with magnets and coils operated to connect calls. Then came digitisation and slowly the noise abated and the size of the equipment reduced leaving silent almost empty halls where the equipment of the past once stood and a single small box in the corner carrying out the same tasks that filled the massive room in the past.

I’ve been very lucky in my career. I was always at the heart of innovation and technology. I’ve been learning all my Engineering life. That’s what keeps me addressed to change. One of the problems we have is that many people didn’t keep learning in an industry of relatively slow change in the past and when the exponential changes came at increasing speed they were unable to address them. The move from the hardware specific communications equipment of today to the open software-based networks of tomorrow is a case in point. Today software skills are an absolute requirement, however this does not mean that traditional network skills are not relevant, but does mean that these alone are no longer enough.

I’ve been fortunate to have worked in really good roles. I worked at BT where I was the Group Technology Officer and my team began such services such as BT vision and BT FON (Open Wi-Fi at the time).  Then I worked at HP and moved into software business with a $1bn P&L and for me that was a big change but also a fantastic opportunity to evolve new skills and new learning with lots of customer facing work.  In the BBC I dived deep into radio and TV broadcasting architecture and services and played a major role in the Radio 1 FM deployment and in AT&T lead the role out of major networks across EMEA including their very first Internet backbone network in Europe.

In my career I had had the privilege to hone my skills in traditional networking, broadcasting, and software in HP and Juniper and CTO roles. I worked for both service providers and vendors. I also played a leading role in the ETSI NFV industry body in the early days as we explored the required architecture for future software defined networks with Network Functions Virtualisation. In recent times I been helping the TM Forum as a Strategic Advisor and recently co-wrote their future architecture strategy (ODA). Currently I am leading their Artificial Intelligence Initiatives and the planning for AI sessions at the forthcoming TM Forum Action Week event in Lisbon.

What do TM Forum focus on?
TM Forum is the global member association in the telecommunications industry that drives collaboration and collective innovation to maximize the business success of communication and digital service providers and their ecosystem of suppliers. The organisation is supported leading Service Providers (AT&T, BT, Orange etc) and leading Vendors from across the world.

TM Forum focusses on OSS (Operational Support Systems) and BSS (Business Support Systems) and had additional developed recently to be a forum for Smart City development.

How does TM Forum operate?
TM Forum’s vision is to help communications service providers (CSPs) and their suppliers to digitally transform and thrive in the digital era. They do this by providing an open, collaborative environment and practical support which enables CSPs and suppliers to rapidly transform their business operations, IT systems and ecosystems to capitalize on the opportunities presented in a rapidly evolving digital world.

TM Forum represents over 850-member companies generating US$2 trillion in revenue and serving five billion customers across 180 countries.

Find out more about TM Forum here

What were your first thoughts when year heard about SDN/NFV?
My first thought was how wonderful this technology could be for example to be able to add new components/functions to a network in minutes or seconds rather than weeks or years. And to be able to be much more reactive to customer requirements and create all sorts of new services in all sorts of new ways. The innovators such as Google and Amazon innovated at speeds Telco’s could only dream about, now with this technology Telco’s could innovate new services in days rather than the many months or even years it had taken in the past.

But then the problems started to occur. How do you manage these new software-based networks and how do you ensure services work properly?

These new SDN/NFV networks were more complex than in the past, one has to manage carefully the complexity created against the fixability gained and ensure that operational costs do not spiral out of control. The only way to do this effectively was with automation and it soon became clear that automation driven my Artificial Intelligence (AI) would be required. Now leading the AI work in the TM Forum is very exciting as we bringing many companies from across the industry together to define the required features and architecture to deliver the automation required.

What do you like most about the industry?
What I love most about the industry is the constant innovation that is happening and the requirement to be always learning. But even more important is the delivery of this innovation to drive meaningful new services for the customer. There is a real buzz when you deliver something that is meaningful both to the business and to customers. Innovation is nothing without delivery and innovation without delivery well that’s just hallucination.

Who do you see as the biggest adaptors?
That would be the service providers. They are the ones that are driving SDN/NFV, not the Enterprise world. I think that is because it is too complex at the moment. Enterprises need the easy button, and we haven’t created a good enough easy button yet for this new technology paradigm.

Where do you see the future of networking going?
It will be going towards SDN and NFV, also, 5G is going to change a lot of things. The evolution of the core networks with 5G is going to be very important. Network slicing is another big area for new development in networks. Smart Cities will become mainstream, we will see more and more smart services in cities, homes and cars. My house is already riddled with IOT devices and voice-controlled Amazon Alexa components.

The direction of networks will be towards software. Software skills are going to be far more in demand than hardware skills. But there are needs for people who can do both. More and more the roles of traditional CTO and CIO are merging and networks today are not just the cost centres of the past delivering business capabilities, but now platforms for business innovation and growth.

Would you say it is better to be a generalist than an expert?
Today we have many people who are experts in particular areas such as in software, networks and mobile networks. We need those, we need people who are an expert in a specific area. But we also need experts across these areas, someone who can put the various pieces together i.e how the overall infrastructure and services should work. We don’t have enough people who are able look at the overall jigsaw of the architecture and optimise the totality to deliver the business goals with maximum effectiveness and capability.

What implications does this have on the modern day “Network Engineers”?
There has been a change in the whole industry in terms of the skillset. As mentioned before it’s in my nature to keep learning and evolving, being able to go from hardware to software. But this isn’t the case for everyone. This is becoming a bit of a problem for the industry because there are many Network Engineers that are stuck in the hardware space. There are a lot of people coming in the industry from a software background, but they don’t understand networks. So, there is a gap at both ends.

Will the need for Network Engineers go away?
It won’t go away, it will just change. It will become more software based. There will still be a need for people to create and build networks. The people who are in high demand now are the software people and the Data scientists. They are only at Google and Amazon because nobody else can afford to take them on.

“Big changes in skills are coming in the industry but old ones are still valuable but not enough on their own”

What is the biggest difficulty when recruiting?
From an engineering prospective, I would be looking at people with software skills who are eager to learn about networks and have open minds to innovation. However also I would have some key architects who are experts in particular domains and a few folks who have the ability to span the whole architecture both software and hardware, these folks are like gold-dust and can make a tremendous difference as long as they too support new ideas and ways of doing things. Creating the right culture in a team is key and this begins with the leader.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to a Network Engineer?
Keep learning and have an open mind to innovation the number one thing for me is that in our industry you can’t be complacent about the technical knowledge you have nor the technologies you are using.  The speed of innovation is accelerating and you have to stay abreast of the new developments that are going on in the industry however even that is not enough now if you want to progress to the C level then you need a real business understanding as well as a technical one. Why; because technology now is no longer a platform within a business providing services, it is today often the core of business innovation and growth and that needs a wider mindset. Change well that is constant and accelerating anyone thinking its an option needs to think again.