FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla.— CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL) may be just as anxious to use a mixture of software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) as anyone, but the telco is realistic about how these technologies will fit into a network of its size.
Speaking during the opening keynote at the 2014 FTTH Conference & Expo, James Feger, vice president, Network Strategy and Development for CenturyLink, said the adoption of SDN and NFV will be carried out in phases.
Like other telcos, CenturyLink is considering applying NFV and SDN in various layers of its network. "I think it's a matter of timing," Feger said. "Layer-3 and above is the easy approach, but SDN is a couple of years out for large networks in terms of being a ubiquitous solution."
Feger added that "when I say Layer-3 is the easy one, I don't mean it's happening tomorrow--it's an evolution."
In the near-term, CenturyLink has seen Layer-2 SDN solutions that could be of use today, but at the Layer-1 optical, there are still issues that need to be worked out.
During one of its early SDN lab trials, CenturyLink examined how an optical DWDM long-haul system could be used for a bandwidth-on-demand application.
"If I look at my lifecycle timing, SDN is not necessarily something that I am going to go out and proactively rip and replace equipment to enable," Feger said. "So if you look at it as an evolution of the network as part of lifecycle, I believe where we are as an industry as a whole, my router lifecycles are coming up faster than my optical platforms."
The SDN and NFV movement is part of the broader convergence trend. During the first stage, service providers built out large IP and MPLS-based backbones where they carried all of their voice, video and data networks.
"What we're starting to see now is the concept of software and applications driving the network to do different things," Feger said. "You're really seeing this mix, or this triad of things in terms of network, data center and applications blending together."
So what does the application of these technologies mean for the end-user?
While consumers don't care about how service providers apply these technologies in their network, these technologies will enable them to get the applications and functions they want whenever they want.
"I don't think the end users care at all how it gets done, but they want it now and they want to be in control of it," Feger said. "The only way to get there is to move away from a hardware-based and silo-based network approach."
One of the potential uses for NFV could be to provide virtual set-top boxes (STB) for its growing Prism IPTV service.
During the first quarter, the telco added 24,000 Prism TV subscribers, ending the period with a total of 6.1 million subscribers.
As it continues to scale its subscriber base, the virtual STB concept could potentially give customers more say in how they consume video content via a traditional TV set or on a mobile device inside the home.
Virtual STBs could also reduce the installation and activation time for CenturyLink and other service providers that deliver video services.
"Virtual set-top box means a lot to us," Feger said. "One of the functions of a set-top box in the network is that it is software-driven and it could be pre-provisioned."
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