Colt was implementing SDN and NFV in its data centers before those terms had even been coined.

Mitch Wagner, Executive Editor, Light Reading

August 7, 2014

6 Min Read
Colt Pulls the Trigger on Data Center Virtualization

Colt was into SDN and NFV before those terms ever got near a water cooler.

The London-based network operator firmly embraced virtualization in 2011, before "software-defined networking" became a hot trend and way before the term "network functions virtualization" was even coined.

That move was part of a new strategy built around the operator's Information Delivery Platform (IDP), which is how Colt Technology Services Group Ltd defines its end-to-end platform (network, data centers, IT, and voice services). (See Interview: Mark Leonard, Colt's Bridge Builder, published in August 2011, for more background on the IDP strategy.)

As part of that ongoing strategy, one of Colt's main goals is to combine IT and network connectivity into a single, integrated service. "The idea is to allow customers to buy a seamless service, not a set of components," says Mirko Voltolini, VP, Technology and Architecture, at Colt.

So how does virtualization fit into the IDP?

In what can be described as a "pre-NFV" move, Colt used network virtualization capabilities as part of its strategy to remove physical Layer 3 devices from customer premises and, instead, deliver services such as VPNs and Internet access to enterprise customers using a combination of software tools (virtual CPE) and higher-performance Layer 2 devices in its IP edge network.

In that IP edge/access network, Colt has supported a multi-vendor environment. It started with Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) gear, then added boxes from Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) and, later, Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), with Cisco becoming legacy.

The primary drivers were to reduce cost and complexity while improving service capabilities, says Voltolini.

Figure 1: Mirko Voltolini, Colt VP Technology and Architecture Mirko Voltolini, Colt VP Technology and Architecture

With its focus on the enterprise sector, Colt serves relatively small numbers of big customers. "It's not so much the volume -- it's the complexity," Voltolini says. "Given the focus on enterprise, we have hundreds or thousands, rather than hundreds of thousands, of customers." That enterprise focus demands fast configurations, and traditional methods weren't cutting it. "In the previous model, each customer would take weeks for setting up connectivity, with manual, remote configuration work."

In addition to the evolution of its customer/edge network to a more virtualized environment, Colt is virtualizing networks in its data centers. Colt has about 500 customers in a primary data center in Paris, and needed to migrate those users away from an ageing, no-longer-supported infrastructure that was initially based solely on Cisco gear. Colt has a total of 20 data centers across Europe, and has deployed its first phase of virtualization across four data centers, including Paris, with the remaining data centers getting the virtualization treatment during the next 18 months.

August is telco data center month at Light Reading. For more on this topic, check out our dedicated Data Center content channel.

The data center set-up was complex, and required manual, physical connectivity to multiple networks for the full range of services.

That was the main driver of virtualization for Colt -- network programmability. A second driver was cutting costs, and Colt succeeded in cutting unit costs by 60-70%.

Moreover, the old infrastructure wasn't scalable. Colt had difficulty meeting demand for multiple 10Gbit/s connections to link servers, storage, and other IT capabilities, Voltolini says.

To achieve its goals, Colt launched a project called Cloud Centric Networking, or CCN, using CloudStack (open source cloud computing software) and vCloud from VMware Inc. (NYSE: VMW) for cloud resource management.

Next page: Evaluations, and ever more ambitious plans

Evaluations, and ever more ambitious plans
Colt evaluated technology from vendors including Cisco, Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, HP Inc. (NYSE: HPQ), NEC Electronics Corp. and Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD).

Colt decided on switches from Arista Networks Inc. , software from Nicira (acquired by VMware), plus an OpenFlow soplutyion from NEC to connect to Colt's pre-existing network.

Nuage, an Alcatel-Lucent business, was under consideration, but Colt decided the fledgling operation was at too early a stage in its development, with software only at version 0.9. Nuage would be a stronger contender if Colt were doing the same evaluation today, Voltolini says.

The deployment of VMware NSX (a combination of Nicira and vCloud capabilities) and Arista switches allowed Colt to implement an overlay SDN solution, rather than rip-and-replace its existing equipment. Colt's pre-existing network is built using Cisco Catalyst 6500 switches, more than 10 years old and lacking sufficient scalabilty. "Instead of adding a couple of ports on existing Cisco devices, it's cheaper to buy a couple of Arista switches," Voltolini says. As Colt needs to add new switches to its capacity, it uses Arista rather than Cisco.

The virtual network allows Colt to quickly assemble a portfolio of services for an enterprise customer, Voltolini says. "We can connect web service, storage, with backup in data center, together with a management network and WAN connectivity -- in this case, we can connect five networking capabilities. This used to be a laborious process with people going into the data center and actually connecting cables from port to port and then configuring systems. Now, the VMware [system] does it automatically."

As a next step, Colt is extending virtualization outside the data center using the standard NFV model. Colt has RFIs [requests for information] out to nine vendors -- including Cisco, Juniper, Alcatel-Lucent, VMware, Tail-f (recently acquired by Cisco), Cyan Inc. and Versa Networks -- to provide a full solution of orchestration, VNF (virtual network function) management, virtual CPE, firewall, and load balancer capabilities. (See Colt a Significant Win for Cyan and Cisco to Buy Hot Startup Tail-f for $175M.)

Colt expects to complete evaluating the RFIs by the end of the month and may decide to mix solutions from multiple vendors. That ability is a major advantage of a strategy anchored around virtualized functions -- carriers aren't locked into a single vendor for everything. "We are able to modularize different components, and if we want to add a CPE or edge equipment from another vendor, we can do that," Voltolini says.

After deciding on vendors, Colt hopes to go to the proof of concept (PoC) stage by September.

Colt's ambitious plans don't stop there. It is looking to virtualize the network from end-to-end, including the wide area network. While Colt's data center clouds are virtualized, the rest of its infrastructure is more traditional in nature -- and that comes with the traditional challenges of time- and labor-intensive planning, configuration, activation and management. Colt has already begun associated PoCs in vendor labs, and is working with Cyan and Accedian

Colt calls this project the Modular Multiservice Platform. It was launched late last year, and its earliest iteration won the Light Reading Leading Lights Award for Most Innovative Ethernet/Optical Service. (See Colt Wins Leading Lights Innovative Ethernet Service Award , Leading Lights 2014 Winners Video and Leading Lights Awards 2014: The Winners.)

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected].

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About the Author(s)

Mitch Wagner

Executive Editor, Light Reading

San Diego-based Mitch Wagner is many things. As well as being "our guy" on the West Coast (of the US, not Scotland, or anywhere else with indifferent meteorological conditions), he's a husband (to his wife), dissatisfied Democrat, American (so he could be President some day), nonobservant Jew, and science fiction fan. Not necessarily in that order.

He's also one half of a special duo, along with Minnie, who is the co-habitor of the West Coast Bureau and Light Reading's primary chewer of sticks, though she is not the only one on the team who regularly munches on bark.

Wagner, whose previous positions include Editor-in-Chief at Internet Evolution and Executive Editor at InformationWeek, will be responsible for tracking and reporting on developments in Silicon Valley and other US West Coast hotspots of communications technology innovation.

Beats: Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), IP networking, and colored foods (such as 'green rice').

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