After 25 years, Chris Rice says 'Adios' to AT&T

After a 25-year career, Chris Rice left his position at AT&T at the end of July. Rice played a key role in AT&T's software-defined networking (SDN), virtualization and cloud efforts over the years, and was the telco's point man for various open source efforts as well a keynote speaker at industry conferences.

Rice, who started at AT&T in 1995, was senior vice president of network infrastructure and cloud prior to his decision to move on to new horizons. Ryan Van Wyk was named vice president of AT&T's cloud platforms, and, like Rice, reports to AT&T CTO Andre Fuetsch.

Rice said he left AT&T to pursue new opportunities across SDN, automation and cloudification. While he said he was sorry to see AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan, who was the pioneer of AT&T's Domain 2.0 effort, leave the company in October, it wasn't a factor for his own departure.

AT&T first outlined its virtualization project back in 2013 as part of its Domain 2.0 initiative. Thanks to Rice and the members of his team, AT&T is on track to meet its previously stated goal of having 75% of its core network functions virtualized and under SDN control by 2020.

"I have an opportunity to drive what we've been doing with SDN and automation, and what I think is the next phase that I'll call cloudification, deeper into the industry, " Rice said in a Tuesday morning interview with FierceTelecom. " I want to be a little bit more on the technology side as opposed to the service provider side. This will give me an opportunity to get to do that."

Aside of consulting offers, Rice said he already has several options on the table for his next career move. He said automating SDN and cloudification, all of which he has extensive experience with while at AT&T, are the main areas of focus for his next job.

Chris Rice

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Rice could use his experience to help start-ups drive their automation and software-defined networking needs at scale for customers. The demise of Lumina Networks, which was announced last week, doesn't give Rice pause in terms of working on SDN-related projects. Lumina Networks announced it was closing down last week due to a lack of service provider customers, outside of Verizon and AT&T, and funding.

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"That seemed to be more of a market issue rather than a technology issue, or they wouldn't have had two good customers," Rice said of Lumina.  "There is a simplification of SDN that's starting to happen. I think you can look at things like what's happening with Airship. We are moving from a world that was all kind of virtual machine-focused to a world that's going to be both virtual machine and cloud

"I think some folks are espousing 'Hey, let's just all jump the cloud.' Well, you know, that never happens. I remember enough times in my career where people were saying things like 'We will all just jump into VoIP.' As an industry, we just don't jump. It just doesn't happen."

The Airship project was formed two years ago by AT&T, along with SK Telecom, Intel and the OpenStack Foundation. AT&T uses Airship in its Network Cloud to power its 5G packet core, among other tasks. The open source Project Airship, which is operated by the OpenStack Foundation, was created using seed code from AT&T.

"There's still some issues with cloud that people don't tend to talk about," Rice said.  "One of them is the networking speeds really aren't there compared to a virtual machine. The security is not as tight. Remember, a lot of this came about because the people in Google created Kubernetes and they built their own applications. So they didn't have to worry about some of these things."

Rice said unlike Google, telcos typically have isolation of work, isolation of effort and separation of duties, all of which impacts cloud migrations. While Google can dictate which version of Linux its using, telcos have different versions running on hosts that aren't necessary the same versions.

"Remember for Kubernetes to get its benefit the host OSS has to be the same for all the guests that ride on it," Rice said. "You've got to get all of your ecosystem in the lineup around the same Linux. So there are still some practical issues for what I'll call in-house infrastructure and applications that have to be fixed for cloud.

"Airship is recognition of this and it is definitely the way to go. These are some things that have got to get fixed, but we're going to be in this hybrid world for a while."

Rice said one of the biggest highlights of his A&T career was working with bosses such as Donovan and Fuetsch, as well as his own team.

"We did so much great work and quite frankly, they're the greatest team in telecoms," Rice said. "From my perspective, I really want to focus more on the technology and what I'll call the ease of consumption of the technology, and then the broadening of the technology into the ecosystem.

"The experience that I have on how to do it, I think, is valuable for a lot of folks. It was just kind of my decision around that. I'd like to go do this."

As the saying goes, Rice is one of life's good guys, whether he is rock climbing or spending extra time with journalists at conferences to make sure they understand the technology and its implication in the telecoms world.