CenturyLink is revving up for the race to total virtualization, saying Monday that it will have 40% of its global IP core network locations virtualized this year with full global virtualization coverage in its IP core network and data centers planned by 2018. That strategy is based on virtualizing the edge of the network now, using virtual routers at the network edge and virtualized CPE at the customer premises. (See CenturyLink Announces Virtualization Plans.)
That puts CenturyLink among the most aggressive legacy network operators in embracing virtualization, as part of its announced move to a cloud-based network infrastructure. AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), another aggressive player, has adopted a different measure, promising to virtualize 75% of its total network functions by 2020.
Building on the Programmable Services Backbone announced earlier this year as the SDN network over which it will deliver business services, CenturyLink has created what it is calling virtualization pods and moved the edge routing functions -- now virtualized -- into those edge locations, says James Feger, vice president of network strategy and development. From there, the virtualized routers tie back into the physical core network elements. (See CenturyLink Lands on Cyan's Blue Planet.)
"This is an evolution of the story that we have been talking about, it's not just a virtual application or virtual service, it is a virtual service tied in tightly with the network," Feger says. Virtual routers are tied directly into core network elements, and CenturyLink is doing all the traditional things that happen on an edge router in this virtual infrastructure.
The network operator has built out this NFV platform in 36 network and data center locations in seven countries globally and expects to reach 44 locations by year's end. This builds on the NFV work the company has already done, virtualizing firewalls and security features, as well as the internal content delivery network it uses to support its Prism IPTV service. It clearly lays out how CenturyLink envisions its move to the New IP. (See Inside CenturyLink's NFV/SDN Strategy.)
Initially, this virtualization pods are in CenturyLink's largest points of presence and in major hosting and cloud data centers, Feger says, but that will continue to evolve, and central office transformation is definitely on the road map. "We want to have them in every major tera-PoP location and every key major data center," he says. "When you think of a PSB pod or node, it's not one size fits all -- that's the beauty of this. It is scalable for the need. So when you talk about CO conversion, and we are very serious about that, it could easily lead to hundreds of these."
On the drawing board for CenturyLink are customer-driven bandwidth-on-demand services, another hot topic in the competitive space, given AT&T's NetBond and Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT)'s Dynamic Network Capacity. (See Level 3's SDN Play Focused on Hybrid Clouds and SDN Powers AT&T's Rapid On-Demand Expansion.)
"We are looking at the concept of turning up and turning down services on demand," Feger says. "That is our plan -- we don't today but that is what we are working towards."
The company is working with all three of its router vendors -- Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR) -- on virtualized routers, as well as its primary orchestrator, Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN)'s Blue Planet -- formerly part of Cyan -- and also AlcaLu's Nuage Networks for the SDN plumbing and services, Feger says.
CenturyLink is also working with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) on the back-office and business systems transformation required.
Feger notes that his company is now reaping some of the benefits of being early to push NFV into its network, both as virtual CPE with firewall capabilities and in the internal CDN.
"We have had the luxury of working in this area for the last two and a half years," he says. "We jumped in pretty early and the team has been quite successful in showing the growth with the products we launched. We brought along the product operations and product marketing teams and the finance department and we have been working hard to look at the business case."
Ultimately that business case isn't built on saving money by not buying specialized hardware but on the efficiency of delivering services to customers and adding new services, Feger says. And that's where customers are likely to see the initial impact as well.
"To customers, routing is routing, so they won't see a difference there," he says. "They will see difference as we augment products that sit inside PSB, as we want to add a managed services offering or do proactive security alerts for them or add analytics on the fly for them; that is where the power comes in."
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading