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Inside CenturyLink's NFV/SDN Strategy

Carol Wilson

Path forward
Feger hesitates to say that CenturyLink has an overall SDN/NFV deployment game plan, however, calling its roadmap "very high-level, non-detailed and open-ended," largely because he sees major network management and orchestration issues that have yet to be addressed.

"Network management is my biggest concern around this," he says. "It is not getting the technology to function, it's how do we transition from a traditional network operations environment to support something where you have multi-tenant systems inside common hardware and common clusters, and get to where you have kind of broken organizational boundaries that have been traditionally stood up."

In this arena, CenturyLink is working to automate the network orchestrators, to try to take as much of the manual work out of the network management processes as it can, to solve some of the problems its operations teams will have in transitioning to a virtualized environment and away from today's network management silos. Feger admits this isn't a complete solution, but "we can at least take out some of the heavy impact by putting a lot of automation around it."

The network operator is working with a few different orchestration systems and a few different proofs of concept at public events over the next several months, as well as conducting its own internal bake-offs of different orchestrators, he says.

CenturyLink's work to break down the traditional management silos or stacks within its organization has garnered significant attention of late. Feger himself has spoken publicly of those efforts and the company has announced work with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) to bring its traditional approaches to operations and support systems (OSSs) into greater alignment with long-term goals. (See CenturyLink Drives a Nail Into Osmine’s Coffin and CenturyLink, Ericsson Leverage Legacy for Agile IT.)

"We do have an approach that we are pretty happy with, pretty early on in our efforts with Ericsson. We believe the way we approach this is we need to transition our back office systems to support what we call the next-gen world, the next-gen infrastructure we are building," Feger says. "You can stand up an orchestration system, have NFV and SDN in this little bubble and everything works fine. The next thing you need it to do is interact with rest of your business or the rest of your customers' services -- you have to have a way to bridge it into everyday business."

The work with Ericsson on its service agility framework will enable CenturyLink to transform the way it handles inventory management and activation systems as well as retool its workflow systems to move to a structure based on applications programming interfaces (APIs) instead of traditional monolithic telco structures.

The team working on the OSS transformation process is "tightly linked" with the team handling the move to SDN and NFV, Feger says, so as an NFV orchestration system is introduced, it becomes "another puzzle piece in the stack."

"We have created what I call the on-ramp and off-ramp capabilities to the API structures to bring in additional services like orchestration or SDN controllers," he says. "We feel like we have the operational components identified and being developed. When we actually get the thing stood up, that will become the proof. But so far on paper we feel pretty good about it."

Next page: The impact of NFV/SDN on vendors, customers

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Carol Wilson
Carol Wilson
5/5/2014 | 9:55:37 AM
Re: Cloud will envelop the edge
"Google Fiber has already demonstrated it can profitably price at $0.00001 in the MAN" -- I'm curious what this figure is based on. Is this based on what Google is charging in KC or Utah? 

5/5/2014 | 9:43:07 AM
Cloud will envelop the edge
This is just the beginning of a fundamental restructuring of the telcos; all of whom are just balkanized islands at the edge of the core dominated by Google, FB, Amazon, et al... The restructuring will mirror what IBM underwent in the early 1990s as the Wintel model disrupted the centralized mainframe processing model held hostage by inefficient connectivity. Ironically a "reverse" situation than what we see at present where the core is significantly scaled and cheaper than the edge.

The edge providers are sitting on business models that still charge $0.001 to terminate the equivalent of a voice minute in the MAN (much, much more for wireless access), whereas the core WAN's economic rate is $0.0000004 and declining 20-40% annually. Bringing WAN-side scale to the edge and a focus on driving marginal cost down at every layer and boundary point (both capex and opex) Google Fiber has already demonstrated it can profitably price at $0.00001 in the MAN, and they have yet to scale the model to wireless offload and backhaul, SMB and the big kahuna, enterprise managed services.  (The latter will actually pay for a lot of edge investment.  A last mile 800 model.) So MAN costs can shift an additional 1-2 decimal places to the right as the scale economies of the cloud are driven to the edge.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
4/23/2014 | 2:57:39 PM
The final bit
The final bit is the real benefit of SDN and NFV: Allowing carriers to create networks that are so flexible that customers can configure their own virtual networks on the fly, without human intervention. That will result in increased demand and revenue for carriers. Other benefits for SDN/NFV are cost savings, which are terrific, but do't grow the business. 
4/23/2014 | 1:29:19 PM
Re: Realistic and intriguing
Sure, I imagine the costs for SDN setup are a tiny fraction of buying and installing hardware.  It makes sense to do it even it fails entirely.

And if it does work, then think of all the instant optimizations you can experiment with which would otherwise require new purchases, equipment updates and so on.

It's hard to even imagine going back to hardware if it at all works.
[email protected]
4/23/2014 | 8:24:37 AM
Realistic and intriguing
THis all makes a lot of sense and, I imagine, it's in line with what alot of operators are doing -- being cautious but explorative, figuring out what is going to work and having a rewind button/backup plan. 

Great feature.
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