CenturyLink: Hybrid SD-WANs Ain't No Picnic

CenturyLink today is rolling out managed service bundles targeting businesses that want to add SD-WAN options to their existing private Internet links and run services appropriately across both. The service promises to eliminate complexity for customers, and its introduction is a further indication of how service providers are using software-defined WAN technology to create differentiated offerings. (See CenturyLink Unveils Managed Hybrid SD-WAN.)

While SD-WAN services are a hot topic right now -- and have been part of CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL)'s portfolio for a year -- most businesses aren't using them to replace their private MPLS-based links, but instead as a lower-cost option for some traffic or for diversity and backup purposes, Troy Trenchard, vice president of product management with CenturyLink tells Light Reading in an interview. Managing traffic and implementing policy in such a hybrid approach introduces complexity that many businesses don't want, however, and that's why CenturyLink is offering managed services bundles. (See CenturyLink: SD-WAN No Quick Fix and CenturyLink: Let's Get Past SD-WAN Hype.)

"When you have a single MPLS connection and I want to put in another different type of connection as backup or less-expensive bandwidth, etc., you have to know how to reconfigure those connections together to get the policy you want," Trenchard says. "Which traffic goes over which link by default, [and] under what conditions -- delay, jitter, latency, etc., -- do I want to shift where the traffic is going? If and when one of my links go down, what is the policy to re-prioritize traffic over the single remaining link until the other link comes back up? Things like that. Getting from a single link where the decision is really just a QoS solution to kind of a load-balanced approach in different and varying bandwidth scenarios, that's work."

Different Kind of Hybrid
CenturyLink's modern building in Salt Lake City alongside historic church
CenturyLink's modern building in Salt Lake City alongside historic church

The other aspect of most conversations with potential SD-WAN customers is about eliminating the hair-pinning of Internet traffic that is common in today's private MPLS connections, he adds. With more data flowing between the enterprise and the cloud -- and not between enterprise sites -- the changing traffic flow makes an SD-WAN option for Internet traffic much more appealing.

These are issues with which other service providers are also grappling, and developing their own SD-WAN service packages. Trenchard thinks CenturyLink is early to the managed services bundle aspect of this market.

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Within SD-WAN managed services, CenturyLink will include its own network connections, but will also bundle aggregated services from other operators for diversity purposes. Backup options for businesses can include wireless services, although there isn't currently a managed service bundle for wireless in CenturyLink's portfolio.

In the year since CenturyLink launched its SD-WAN services, using Versa Networks' technology, the company has learned a lot, and it still expects to see the service evolve given that most businesses are early in the process of adopting SD-WAN, Trenchard says. The considerable interest in hybrid approaches was one surprise, and led to a series of proofs-of-concept with customers that, in turn, led to the choice to offer managed services bundles, making it simpler to adopt a hybrid approach.

CenturyLink is now working to expand geographic availability of its managed hybrid SD-WAN services, which still use Versa. Alongside that, CenturyLink has also included the Cisco Meraki solution as part of its managed enterprise portfolio, which Trenchard says is aimed primarily at the mid-market space, where customers wanted a fully integrated solution with low-maintenance requirements.

The CenturyLink executive does not rule out using other vendors' SD-WAN technology, saying he and his team are constantly following what is going on in the industry.

"This is an evolving market both in terms of the technology and the vendors, but also the use cases," Trenchard comments. "We are paying a lot of attention to what is happening in the market and what we are learning from our current engagements."

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

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