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CenturyLink Sets Sights on SD-WAN

Elizabeth Miller Coyne
6/22/2016
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CenturyLink is setting its cap at SD-WAN services for its business customers as a way to meet enterprise demands for high-speed network services, especially those businesses with multiple locations such as banks and retail -- and as a replacement for T1s that are outmoded in a bandwidth-hogging, digital-driven economy.

Software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology lets service providers create a network from point-to-point and match network performance to application requirements using software-defined networking (SDN) and virtualization. According to research from IDC , the emerging market for SD-WAN services could reach approximately $6 billion annually by 2020. (See What Is SDNFV & Why Should You Use It?)

The SD-WAN "story" starts with the birth of cloud computing, according to Eric Barrett, Network Product Management Director, CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL) "Cloud computing has opened up the avenue for a whole lot of applications that our end users are getting flooded with," said Barrett. "Our customers, especially ones that have branch offices -- those branch offices are right now getting flooded with requirements from all over the business -- operational teams wanting to put in video conferencing; marketing teams wanting to do customer analytics and install digital signage; the security teams add devices -- it's all driving the bandwidth demand.” (See CenturyLink Unveils SD-WAN Service.)

Typically branch locations in the MPLS world have been serviced by T1s delivering 1.5Mbit/s. "That's no longer sufficient," said Barrett. "Upgrading from a 1.5Mbit/s T1 to the bandwidth you need on an MPLS network -- and the bandwidth you might need 20Mbit/s, easily -- it's going to cost you three times what you are paying for a T1. People go home at night and get 75Mbit/s on Comcast -- the availability of broadband has really shifted the mindset." (See Verizon, Cisco Launch Smarter WAN, SingTel Teams With Viptela on SDN-Based Service and Masergy: Predictability Drives Private Cloud Connection Boom .)

The "heart" of SD-WAN is software, noted Barrett. "The combination of software toolsets and broadband is really what's opened the door and made this such a dynamic and interesting story for so many people."

According to Barrett, CenturyLink's solution is solving both the bandwidth problem and the software problem. "We've got to be able to facilitate our customers' needs no matter what the solution is at the prem," he says. "And if it's someone else's broadband connection, we have to help them."

CenturyLink took a number of steps to get to SD-WAN, including putting contracts in place with Charter Communications, Cox Communications, Time Warner and Comcast where they will resell their broadband services and take management of that service for their customers, according to Barrett.

On the solutions side, CenturyLink had a "bake-off" with a number of different SD-WAN solutions providers and found Versa Networks to be "pretty far above where the others were," says Barrett. "Plus they get the networking world. Some of the other vendors were born of the cloud world, didn't get the network world and went too far past what our customers can relate to and understand."

Barrett also added that the ability for Versa's solution to serve the multi-tenant space was key in its decision as well.

On the network architecture side, CenturyLink built a director and controller infrastructure in a multi-tenant fashion at the core of the network and added a box at the customer prem where the software resides and communicates to the director and controller -- and the underlying network can be either an MPLS network or a broadband network, according to Barrett. "You have basically a seamless software defined network over any hybrid underlying network and we put the management over that entire stack."

Today CenturyLink has 17 pilot customers using the service as part of the proof-of concept phase and the service will be generally available in Q3. Barrett says the provider is seeing greatest interest for the service from banks and retail services -- businesses with many remote locations that were underserved when it came to high-bandwidth services.

— Elizabeth Miller Coyne, managing editor, Light Reading

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