How Colt Built Its On Demand Platform

Three strategic initiatives &ndash Novitas, Stratus and Sentio &ndash have powered Colt's move into on-demand services.

James Crawshaw, Principal Analyst, Service Provider Operations and IT, Omdia

May 21, 2018

8 Min Read
How Colt Built Its On Demand Platform

During the past three years, UK-headquartered enterprise carrier Colt has significantly overhauled its infrastructure and systems, extending the high-bandwidth Colt IQ Network to more than 200 cities, 800 data centers and 26,000 directly connected buildings across 29 countries. A key element in its transition from traditional to cloud networking is the concept of on-demand services that empower customers to make real-time changes in the services they consume with a self-service portal -- or directly via APIs -- allowing them to order from a menu of ports, connections and value-added services paid for at a flexible hourly rate.

Enabling this on-demand capability are three strategic Colt initiatives: Novitas (network orchestration); Stratus (network cloud); and Sentio (network intelligence).

We met with Mirko Voltolini, head of Network On Demand, and Fahim Sabir, director, Network On Demand, at Colt Technology Services to learn more.

Voltolini leads the Network On Demand group, which has overall responsibility for network and IT development and product management for this area in Colt. Sabir leads the development of portals, orchestration and APIs for On Demand.

Figure 1: Mirko Voltolini, head of Network On Demand (above), and Fahim Sabir, director, Network On Demand (below), at Colt Technology Services Mirko Voltolini, head of Network On Demand (above), and Fahim Sabir, director, Network On Demand (below), at Colt Technology Services

Figure 2:

Early SDN activities
Colt started developing its SDN/NFV capabilities in 2011, with an initial focus on virtual CPE for Layer 3 IP services. The basic idea involved moving the customer IP routing function from the customer premises to the network edge, similar to today's NFV use cases. The main initial driver for the adoption of SDN was operational efficiency -- by simplifying internal processes for the delivery and assurance of services, Colt aimed to reduce cost by taking away manual steps and physical elements.

To simplify the delivery of services, Colt implemented an SDN layer, still in use today, based on Blue Planet (now part of the Ciena portfolio). Although the system was capable of full automation, it was operated under the supervision of the service delivery teams. Colt then introduced SDN concepts such as path computation to calculate, albeit offline, an end-to-end path for services. Voltolini notes, "We then extended the SDN control layer to the data center for the typical initial SDN use case of hooking up IT and network to create a connection in the switching layer between the WAN and the IT domain within the data center."

Novitas (network orchestration)
Colt then moved in 2015 to implement SDN/NFV not just as a cost-saving exercise but as a commercial differentiator by delivering services in a more agile way. The initial focus was to create a portal to allow customers to consume services directly, without the need to go through the traditional manual ordering process. Quotes, orders and service delivery could all be automated at the click of a button. To enable this, Colt developed a business orchestrator, dubbed Novitas, sitting above other network orchestration and SDN control tools.

When they started planning Novitas, Colt could not find any suitable commercial solutions on the market. Sabir says: "Potential solutions that were available were for a traditional telco experience based around orders, and service delivery, whereas what we wanted to implement was more akin to the experience you get with a cloud service provider such as AWS and Azure -- a real paradigm shift." Colt didn't need to buy a heavyweight platform: Moreover, any off-the-shelf product would require significant adaptation.

So Sabir and colleagues set about building their own business orchestrator using SDKs and toolkits. For example, the business process automation capability was built using jBPM, an open source workflow engine written in Java.

Novitas comprises three key categories:

  • 1. Portal/API layer -- the interface for enterprise and wholesale customers
    2. Orchestration layer -- built on jBPM
    3. Various dedicated, homegrown microservices for billing, inventory, product catalog, etc.

For its On Demand offering, Colt continues to leverage its existing OSS/BSS systems such as Granite (inventory), Kenan/Amdocs (billing), Siebel/Oracle (order management and customer care), EMC Smarts (monitoring) and InfoVista (analytics). Colt uses webMethods (acquired by Software AG) as its integration platform. "We haven't had to spend a significant amount of time or money on integration, and using existing IT components such as billing haven't been an impediment to the move to on-demand services," Sabir says.

The first version of Novitas was built in just three months. Since then Colt has maintained a release cycle of roughly one per month and, as a result, it has deployed more than 20 releases in the two years since launch. Sabir adds: "The idea is to iterate quickly. Legacy OSS/BSS doesn't need to change much. So, we operate a two-speed IT environment, with Novitas evolving quickly while other systems are kept stable."

Next page: Implementing an NFV cloud

Stratus (network cloud)
In 2017 Colt looked to implement an NFV telco cloud. It had already virtualized its SD-WAN service, using Versa, exposing it to customers through the Novitas portal. However, the SD-WAN service used its own NFV Infrastructure with dedicated compute and storage that could not be shared with other virtual network functions (VNFs).

The plan with Stratus is to create a common NFVi (NFV infrastructure) that can host multiple different VNFs (firewall, WAN acceleration, etc.) from different suppliers as well as internal functions that Colt has virtualized (e.g. route reflectors for VPN and CPE functions for Layer 2 services).

Stratus will take the role of Virtual Infrastructure Manager (VIM) in the ETSI NFV architecture as well as the MANO layer. The current design is a collection of commercial components -- Netcracker for service activation, Blue Planet for SDN, Accedian for Layer 2 services -- that have been integrated. Colt has an outstanding RFP for the orchestration layer that will sit on top and form the core of Stratus. Voltolini notes: "We had assumed Stratus would be ETSI MANO based. However, some vendors are actually suggesting it should ONAP based -- a commercial wrap around the ONAP open source project."

Sentio (network intelligence)
The third and least complete of Colt's On Demand strategic initiatives is Sentio, which Voltolini admits is still in the R&D phase. Its aim is to automate service management with service modification and restoration based on closed loop automation. Sentio will use intelligent data analysis and correlation and will be powered by AI/machine learning. The Sentio project started last year and Colt is currently implementing a proof of concept.

Sentio use cases include:

  • 1. Network operations automation -- Colt aims to enhance its service assurance capabilities by taking non-traditional data (signal strength, power, temperature, etc.) from network elements (cards, links, etc.) to predict potential faults.
    2. Security -- DDoS, threat discovery and mitigation
    3. Customer experience -- helping customer service teams to deal with customer inquiries through the use of chat bots and quicker access to relevant information (e.g. known faults).

Inter-carrier interoperability poses an automation challenge
Like all telecom operators, Colt partners with other carriers to reach places where its lacks its own network, for instance in Latin America and Africa. To provide on-demand services to customers with office locations outside its footprint, Colt must be able to orchestrate these third-party networks. This is a challenge, as it requires the other operators to also have a similar level of automation in their networks. "There are only a handful of carriers in the world that currently offer that," according to Sabir.

Integration between carriers typically only happens where there is a large volume of business between them over which the costs of integration can be spread. This results in an IT project on both sides, including requirements, design, development, test and implementation. "If we could standardize the interfaces between carriers, we could skip the requirements, design, development, and go straight to test and implementation," says Sabir. By doing so, Colt will be able to extend the reach of its automated network services.

In 2016 Colt announced a trial of SDN interoperability with AT&T's network. During the trial the operators successfully provisioned network services between the US and Europe with SDN-to-SDN control using a programmatic API-to-API interface between the separate SDN architectures. The trial was extended in 2017 to also include Orange, with the three carriers working with the MEF and TM Forum to release the first set of standard APIs -- based on the MEF's Lifecycle Service Orchestration framework and TM Forum's Open APIs -- for orchestrated Carrier Ethernet services. Earlier this year, Colt and Verizon demonstrated a similar trial of cross-carrier automation on their production networks.

Overall, Sabir believes that the standardization effort within organizations like the MEF is making good progress and the barriers to inter-carrier interoperability are being lowered.

The need for an automation-first approach
During the past three years Colt has made tremendous progress with its On Demand platform, supported by Novitas and the emerging Stratus and Sentio initiatives. Says Voltolini: "Initially we started with 30 data centers but we have now extended the offer across our entire European and Asian footprint. Moreover, we are expanding the portfolio of On Demand offerings beyond just Ethernet services."

The automation capabilities that Novitas, Stratus and Sentio will provide will prove crucial to the company's long-term competitive position. Sabir says: "We are moving towards a fully automated world -- we are playing catch-up with the cloud providers that have always taken an automation-first approach, whereas carriers have decades of legacy that they need to resolve first."

— James Crawshaw, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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About the Author(s)

James Crawshaw

Principal Analyst, Service Provider Operations and IT, Omdia

James Crawshaw is a contributing analyst to Heavy Reading's Insider reports series. He has more than 15 years of experience as an analyst covering technology and telecom companies for investment banks and industry research firms. He previously worked as a fund manager and a management consultant in industry.

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