SDN architectures

Level 3 Stays Ahead in the On-Demand Race

Having already pioneered the kind of automated customer control that many carriers are looking to develop with SDN, Level 3 Communications is now exploring what else it can do with software controls, but finding its progress gated somewhat by supplier readiness, says Travis Ewert, vice president of network software development.

Ewert, who will be among the keynote speakers May 12 in Denver for Light Reading's Carrier SDN Networks, explains in an interview how tw telecom -- since acquired by Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT) -- developed its own domain controllers years ago, as part of its efforts to automate its operations processes and put more control into the hands of the customer.

While focusing on removing manual processes and enabling automation at scale within its network at virtually every layer, the company built out frameworks that look very much like the reference models being developed today for SDN, he notes.

"Whether that was lucky or good -- and we think it is a little bit of both -- we have literally built a service activation orchestration layer and an orchestration framework with tight ties into that enterprise IT architecture as well as linkages into individual controllers themselves," he says. "It aligns near perfectly with reference models of today, even to the extent that we can add additional controllers for cloud orchestration or for VNFs or other things."

In addition, the company had to build its own adapters and data models because nothing else was readily available for its suppliers to use in creating the abstraction layer that rose above the command line interface method of dealing with network elements.

"We did all of that ugly work ourselves and now we have suppliers who do that for a living," Ewert comments. The good news is, now Level 3's developers can be engaged in doing other things that help the company continue to differentiate and build on its pioneering work, which it continues to do, as indicated by this week's announcement of its SDN strategy and support for hybrid clouds. (See Level 3's SDN Play Focused on Hybrid Clouds.)

Zoom in on carrier SDN strategies in our SDN section here on Light Reading.

He credits "some really good strategic decisions" made while building scale and automation around the physical network functions, to include what is, in essence, service chaining in order to deliver services on demand, with positioning Level 3 well to now incorporate virtual network functions (VNFs) and cloud-based services as part of that process.

"Leveraging what we built in the physical network function space to develop some interesting use cases around VNFs on demand is a strategic advantage for us," he says.

Even as Level 3 is now able to replace and augment some of what it built internally with commercial products that enable greater plug and play, with the addition of data modeling languages such as Yang and the IETF's Network Configuration Protocol (Netconf), there are still limits imposed mostly by what's not available commercially as yet.

"I think the biggest challenge is supplier readiness," Ewert says. "If you look at OpenFlow -- that originated out of data center, you haven't seen that yet play and play well in the more service provider/WAN side. And if you look at the likes of Netconf or the equivalent -- do we see an ecosystem of suppliers generally available for us to use? Not yet. We are really waiting on the industry and those standards to be generally available on all the networking equipment, and until that is there, we are still building out our own adapters."

You can hear more of what Ewert has to share, based on his experience in this realm, by joining us in Denver next week. It's not too late to register here.

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

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