When combined, two ends of the network virtualization spectrum can enable the powerful automation needed to support cloud networks – this at least is CenturyLink’s expectation as it rolls out next generation SDN and NFV technologies across its extensive data centre footprint. For CenturyLink, these virtualization plans represent further advance on a strategy to link the company’s considerable network and cloud assets. Currently ranked as third largest telecom service provider in the US, CenturyLink has also evolved extensive global business service capabilities through acquisition in the areas of IT managed services, colo and cloud. By integrating these two sides of the business, the company intends to leverage the value of each, and is looking to network virtualization as a key means to do so. The goal is total transformation of CenturyLink’s existing core network into an SDN and NFV-based environment: to date, the company has virtualized approximately 40 percent of its global IP core network locations, with an NFV platform deployed in 36 network and data center locations in seven countries, and plans to have full global virtualization coverage across its core network and data centers by 2018.
So what is involved, and what outcome does CenturyLink expect for customers?
At first blush, these two technologies appear antithetical to one another: while SDN is designed to offer enterprises maximum programmability, customization and control of their individual networks, NFV also relies on network abstraction, but in this case, to allow the service provider to build and distribute pre-defined cloud-based, shared network functionality. But the two technologies are linked – and in CenturyLink’s own deployment, SDN works as an enabler of NFV, which in turn is being used to deliver network functions as-a-service. “Once you have SDN deployed,” CenturyLink EVP and CTO Aamir Hussain explained, “you have to start thinking about delivering services to customers, and that’s where NFV comes in.” “NFV is more than the network function itself, you can virtualize CPE [customer premises equipment], you can virtualize routing, and after all that, what we have been doing is virtualizing services for the customer, such as content delivery networks, load balancers, backup, firewalls – and new services as they emerge.”
The agent for replacing hardware with software is CenturyLink’s recently launched Programmable Services Backbone (PSB), a platform that can be accessed through a portal and a set of APIs, which introduces SDN and NFV functions to the company’s core and metro networks and to customer premises equipment (CPE). But the PSB also serves to integrate the company’s networking, cloud, hosting and IT services, using Big Data analytics to enable self-healing and self-learning that allows the network to automatically adjust capacity and balance. The aim is to maintain performance in the CenturyLink environment “as the platform learns from the behaviour of the network traffic and customer usage,” Hussain noted.
For end users and CenturyLink alike, a primary benefit of new virtualization capabilities is easy onboard of new customers or services. To illustrate, Hussain explained that the process to connect an MPLS Ethernet service in traditional network deployment can consume 60 to 90 days as facilities are built, site surveys carried out, equipment installed and configured on customer premises, at the metro level an on the MPLS network – for each customer location. But with NFV, a virtual instance of CenturyLink’s MPLS services can be transferred to any data centre and the customer receive rapid access to data traffic – or to network services.
NFV “is pretty much neutral in terms of what the customer environment is,” Hussain noted. The customer may use Internet delivered by another provider, and a virtual MPLS can be layered on top using a technology called NFVWAN, a new service that CenturyLink is just now trialing. This means the company can extend delivery of advanced SDN and NFV services in areas that are not currently serviced by CenturyLink networks – Canada, for example, where customers may use a variety of carrier services. Hussain added, “Customers may use the public Internet, but get full privacy and security and the integration of all their branch locations with the click of a button. No CPE is shared, there are no configurations and they could be up and running in a minimum amount of time.” To reinforce advance in deployment speed, he explained that a virtual CDN or firewall service could be installed in minutes, hours or days, as opposed to months.
While the customer benefits from the flexibility that the open PSB platform provides, CenturyLink is able to derive savings from the install of SDN on commodity x86 hardware across its data centres and the reduction of installation and maintenance cost, savings that can be passed on to customers. Additionally, the open platform will allows customer or other third-party developers to build new services on top of the CenturyLink platform. “The notion of the whole community working together,” Hussain added, “means it is much easier and faster to deploy new services, to bring them to market much faster, and customers will have access to new technology much more quickly than they were in the past. And this will continue to accelerate.”
By delivering the cloud/networking infrastructure needed to support creation of a dynamic service applications marketplace, CenturyLink aims not only to provide real-time service provisioning, it also expects to deliver more control and a better customer service experience. For the end user, SDN and NFV “really redefine the game,” Hussain argued, as customers can easily access a view of their network from a web page, monitor SLAs and performance, and add more services. The self-healing nature of the network platform means that manual adjustments to load or traffic patterns that may have been required in the past are managed automatically, freeing up the need for technical networking staff resources on customer premises. “Our whole goal is to make networking as simple as possible, so that there’s no need for a dedicated IT staff. An office manager will be able to go online and use click and drag to configure the network – not a lot of skills will be needed as the portal is simple to use,” he explained. Ultimately, CenturyLink efforts in network virtualization are designed to give customers choice: “They want the service where and how they want it. Network virtualization puts more control in the hands of the customers, who can grow and scale as needed without buying upfront capacity,” Hussain concluded, a key tenet of all cloud-based automation technologies.