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CenturyLink: Kill Complexity to Speed NFV

Carol Wilson

In its third generation of NFV/SDN deployment, CenturyLink is taking a very different approach, using its internal software development teams to focus on reducing complexity and enable faster development and scaling of new services and infrastructure, according to a new executive heading the engineering effort.

Adam Dunstan came to CenturyLink last summer as part of its acquisition of Active Broadband and is now vice president of SDN/NFV engineering at the third-largest US carrier. As such, he's bringing a different perspective to the effort, as he tells Light Reading in an interview. Dunstan admits he hasn't spent a lot of time talking to telecom vendors or exploring what the rest of the industry is doing -- instead he brings a software developer's viewpoint to the admittedly large challenge of accelerating the pace of work of a large legacy operation. (See CenturyLink's ABN Buy Is Software Harbinger.)

Dunstan describes himself as "heads down" on execution since arriving at CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL) and is talking about his work publicly for the first time.

"When I came we started working on a third generation of [NFV-SDN], and we looked at the amount of time we spent on this and where we were up to -- and realized we needed to work faster," Dunstan says. "Irrespective of what the industry was doing around us, we needed to work faster."

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The first generation of virtualization at CenturyLink was fairly straightforward, he notes, and in the second generation, the carrier added orchestration. What Dunstan found when he arrived was an unnecessarily complex approach built on multiple interdependencies, where changing something in one place causes issues elsewhere, creating hurdles to achieving the faster work pace the company needs. Important to the effort, Dunstan says, is the willingness to dig deeper -- go "one more layer down" -- into the infrastructure to identify interdependencies of systems and see where some of that can be broken down.

"We took a subtractive approach not an additive approach to increase our velocity," he says. "What I see are very complicated things. As we think about what the web-scale guys are doing, and you talk about cloud, it's very modular. They have a very simplistic approach. We carriers have a very complicated approach to things and we always use our legacy history as the reason why."

The Active Broadband team had been doing software development for its own NFV complex, and it brought that attitude and approach to CenturyLink. Going one layer deeper "uncovered for us all the dependencies and complexities of the dependencies, and all the inherent problems," he says. That "made a tremendous difference in simplifying and understanding all the dependencies we have."

The NFV/SDN engineering team has been working through all that infrastructure, using Agile IT software development methods, and not just doing the traditional approach of integrating new stuff into the old stuff, he notes.

"One of the things [Active Broadband] brought was our whole NFV complex. We were taking an approach that we weren't buying products from vendors, we were writing software," he says. "So when we build an NFV complex and all the associated toolings to make it work, it is much more like building software than our traditional approach of doing integration."

Not surprisingly, that often meant creating some kind of abstraction around the myriad legacy OSSs and BSSs that CenturyLink's conglomeration of local telcos still operates. But even that is done with an eye toward modern software development tools and simplicity.

"We work hard to create abstraction layers in the simplest possible way," Dunstan says. "Can we do it with new software tooling versus old toolings? For example, instead of going into the big backend BSS system and have IT muck around in there, can we write a little web services adapter that will let us just talk to the old system in the same way and not impact them at all?"

So instead of even a large abstraction layer, CenturyLink is looking to these smaller pieces of software to extract necessary information without major IT time and expense. One concrete example Dunstan offers is in the access layer, where once the addition of a new form of access -- a new GPON or DSL technology, for example -- was accompanied by a major IT project.

The core processes were always the same for setting up a service, enabling a customer and setting specific parameters for that customer's service. "We have been doing that forever. Why do we need to go off and do a big IT program when the actual primitives we were getting handed down are exactly the same?" he says.

This is still a major challenge for an operator such as CenturyLink and Dunstan isn't downplaying that. But his team of software developers from Active Broadband all work in Agile IT methodology, as do other folks at CenturyLink that were brought on board with cloud acquisitions such as Tier 3, and they are working together to simplify software engineering and increase velocity internally, he says.

The fruits of those labors will be apparent in coming weeks, Dunstan promises, both with announced services and other changes. The critical piece of this work is ongoing and complexity remains the battle he fights every day.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson,
User Rank: Blogger
2/7/2017 | 5:00:08 PM
Re: Good to hear
It is certainly a major step forward for them - I want to see what's coming out as a result.

User Rank: Light Sabre
2/7/2017 | 2:25:16 PM
Good to hear
Sounds like the kind of breakthrough that will validate the operator move to virtualization.
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