CenturyLink's OSS build sets stage for software-defined networking ecosystem

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Sean Buckley, FierceTelecom

CenturyLink's (NYSE: CTL) recent move to implement a foundation for software-defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) with Ericsson reflects the reality that the real value of these technologies won't truly be seen until a large service provider like CenturyLink deploys it on a large scale.

By deploying the Swedish vendor's next-gen OSS/BSS platform, CenturyLink will be able to improve service delivery times and control for its business customers.

Being a traditional ILEC, CenturyLink knew it had to take a radical approach to enable new software-driven functions for its customers, like on-demand management of their services.

"We've been working with Ericsson because we decided we needed to transform our back office systems in order to support network function virtualization, software definable networking and just what I would call traditional services that the network would provide like Internet, wavelength, Ethernet, and VPN services," said James Feger, vice president of network strategy and development for CenturyLink, in an interview with FierceTelecom. "We've been saying we have to transform because we've been stuck in this legacy telco stack for a long time."

One of the key elements is to drive an open environment, which it is achieving by implementing application programming interfaces (APIs). This allows anyone to develop services and solutions to the new API structures.

Already the effort is having a broader influence on the telecom market. Eleven of CenturyLink's hardware and software vendors are implementing hooks in their offerings to fit into this new environment.

"We asked our top 11 vendors if they would include in their product roadmap support for those API structures so when I have a product change out, it's not a whole rebuild of my system because to the systems the device will look the same because it's all a common API," Feger said.

Feger added that he hopes other vendors will participate in this program. This could serve as one catalyst for network equipment vendors to implement NFV and SDN into their products that fit other service provider's needs.  

"What we wanted was the ability for the customer to have some sort of portal access where they are not only orchestrating what I would call the new fancy NFV and SDN, but legacy Internet services," Feger said. "From a development perspective, it has the biggest impact in that space because it's truly a matter of swapping Lego blocks out."

The initial focus of CenturyLink's OSS transformation is focused on its business customers, particularly those that use its IP/MPLS, Ethernet and wavelength services. 

Enhancing the service experience for business customers comes at a time when CenturyLink has clearly established itself as a key player. For the fourth quarter of 2013, for example, the service provider reported that business revenues, particularly sales of MPLS and Ethernet, rose 7.5 percent year-over-year to $643 million.

Being a large incumbent telco, it will need to have a way to integrate with existing legacy TDM-based services and OSS systems, creating necessary APIs for interaction between each of these domains.

"The IT group is going to build the right hooks into the old stack to still access parts of the system so the new stuff can work, but the idea is all new technology and all new services can flow through in this new stack," Feger said. "Over time what we'll do is to try to migrate the services off the old stack."  

The service provider is hardly alone in making its network more open and driving more customer control.

AT&T (NYSE: T), for instance, recently launched its user-defined network cloud concept with a host of partners, including Ericsson. Leveraging a mix of SDN and NFV, the initiative also is designed to give business customers more control and the ability to add services on demand.

Widespread adoption of SDN and NFV is still nascent, but the fact that CenturyLink and AT&T are driving collaboration between vendors to create solutions that can meet large-scale deployments could provide benefits to other players that are considering similar migrations.--Sean