Inside CenturyLink's NFV/SDN Strategy

The third-largest US telecom operator is taking an aggressive yet practical approach and is willing to challenge its vendors to do more.

April 22, 2014

7 Min Read
Inside CenturyLink's NFV/SDN Strategy

CenturyLink is looking to balance substantial promised benefits against real challenges as it explores its options for SDN and NFV.

The number three US telecom operator is taking an aggressive but practical approach. At least that's the vision put forth by James Feger, VP of network strategy and development. Feger helped launch CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL)'s dive into virtualization in late 2012 by creating a small team within his staff that worked on SDN and NFV concepts.

"Now we're at the point where any network function we look at adding to the network, our first goal is to find out can we run this as a virtual function," says Feger, who will be a keynote presenter at June's Big Telecom Event, discussing CenturyLink's innovation in this area.

Figure 1: CenturyLink's James Feger

Making the leap in 18 months from initial exploration to actual deployment followed two early successes. CenturyLink first deployed a virtual firewall product. Then the company deployed a virtual content delivery network (CDN) for its internal use, to distribute video for IPTV deployments and video-on-demand services. In each of those cases, the carrier had a fallback position if the virtual approach failed to meet expectations, Feger points out.

"We could always go back to an appliance approach to offering managed firewall services and to a more traditional CDN," he says. "That was why we thought we could take a bit of a risk to be early adopters."

CenturyLink is looking to participate in early demonstrations of virtualization -- such as the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) NFV Industry Specification Group's proofs of concept -- based on immediate product-related needs, not theoretical deployments.

"We believe that we as a company, we are going toward more managed services," Feger explains. "So when we were looking for things to demonstrate, we do have a few items to solve internally such as the next generation sets of firewall capabilities, security services, and encryption services. For things such as AAA or DNS infrastructure -- we want those virtualized, but for us that is a different level of priority."

Next page: CenturyLink's transition strategy

Path forward
Feger hesitates to say that CenturyLink has an overall SDN/NFV deployment game plan, however, calling its roadmap "very high-level, non-detailed and open-ended," largely because he sees major network management and orchestration issues that have yet to be addressed.

"Network management is my biggest concern around this," he says. "It is not getting the technology to function, it's how do we transition from a traditional network operations environment to support something where you have multi-tenant systems inside common hardware and common clusters, and get to where you have kind of broken organizational boundaries that have been traditionally stood up."

In this arena, CenturyLink is working to automate the network orchestrators, to try to take as much of the manual work out of the network management processes as it can, to solve some of the problems its operations teams will have in transitioning to a virtualized environment and away from today's network management silos. Feger admits this isn't a complete solution, but "we can at least take out some of the heavy impact by putting a lot of automation around it."

The network operator is working with a few different orchestration systems and a few different proofs of concept at public events over the next several months, as well as conducting its own internal bake-offs of different orchestrators, he says.

CenturyLink's work to break down the traditional management silos or stacks within its organization has garnered significant attention of late. Feger himself has spoken publicly of those efforts and the company has announced work with Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) to bring its traditional approaches to operations and support systems (OSSs) into greater alignment with long-term goals. (See CenturyLink Drives a Nail Into Osmine’s Coffin and CenturyLink, Ericsson Leverage Legacy for Agile IT.)

"We do have an approach that we are pretty happy with, pretty early on in our efforts with Ericsson. We believe the way we approach this is we need to transition our back office systems to support what we call the next-gen world, the next-gen infrastructure we are building," Feger says. "You can stand up an orchestration system, have NFV and SDN in this little bubble and everything works fine. The next thing you need it to do is interact with rest of your business or the rest of your customers' services -- you have to have a way to bridge it into everyday business."

The work with Ericsson on its service agility framework will enable CenturyLink to transform the way it handles inventory management and activation systems as well as retool its workflow systems to move to a structure based on applications programming interfaces (APIs) instead of traditional monolithic telco structures.

The team working on the OSS transformation process is "tightly linked" with the team handling the move to SDN and NFV, Feger says, so as an NFV orchestration system is introduced, it becomes "another puzzle piece in the stack."

"We have created what I call the on-ramp and off-ramp capabilities to the API structures to bring in additional services like orchestration or SDN controllers," he says. "We feel like we have the operational components identified and being developed. When we actually get the thing stood up, that will become the proof. But so far on paper we feel pretty good about it."

Next page: The impact of NFV/SDN on vendors, customers

Vendor wars?
When it comes to dealing with vendors in the SDN/NFV arena, CenturyLink is opening its doors to a wider set of players, including some not traditionally engaged in the purpose-built world of telecom hardware. But the company is also being careful, Feger adds, to define what actually fits into the virtualization space and what is being labeled "SDN" or "NFV" for marketing purposes.

"This [virtualization] changes our relationship with vendors and that is why you are seeing almost an arms race right now with the vendors, in controller development, orchestration development, virtual functions development. I can't recall a time when we had so many different vendors all driving toward a similar target," Feger says. "They want all of their products to be SDN compliant, all of their products to have open capability, and also to participate in the controller space. And the sheer numbers -- it used to be you'd have three or four vendors working in a specific segment but now you've got so many working across the board, it has created this really interesting dynamic in the vendor industry."

One thing Feger is hoping to get from all these eager vendors is a common set of APIs. CenturyLink reached out to 11 of its top vendors and proposed an API structure that wasn't intended to be specific to the company but was based on more widely used terminology and definitions. (See 6 Degrees of Separation: SPs Define 'Open'.)

"We said we think this would help us, from northbound and a southbound perspective, to be much more efficient in network management and they all agreed and have been working to implement those functions in to their EMSs [element management systems] and into some of their devices that we specify, that we were currently using," Feger says. "The idea is to get API structure adopted as a standard set, and we have been working with those 11 vendors to get some momentum behind that. We feel pretty good that that will become the case."

The goal of the API work is to make it much easier two swap out devices to either change vendors or upgrade functionality, he says. It's likely that API work could be fed into one or more standards groups, including ETSI and/or the Metro Ethernet Forum, Feger adds.

Putting the customer in charge
If virtualization succeeds, it won't just change the relationships telecom network operators have with their vendors, however. As Feger notes, the relationship with customers should also change.

"I see it as an enhancement or strengthening point for us," he comments. "For example, we want to hand the keys of control to the customer, which is scary for service providers but in the end, that is where we need to go because customer has expectation of being in control of his own destiny."

That need for control has been fueled by the growth of "apps" -- increasingly, the expectation is that any problem can be solved by an app with the appropriate functionality, Feger adds. And customers have started viewing the network as no different from any other thing that needs to be controlled, on demand.

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

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