CenturyLink retiring NFV 1.0, moves forward with NFV 4.0

illustrates the journey to CFO
CenturyLink is using NFV to spin up new products and services at a faster rate for its business customers. (iStock/CFO Innovation)

While NFV has been a jungle of complexities for some service providers, CenturyLink continues to bushwhack its way to new horizons.

CenturyLink is now on its fourth iteration of NFV, and while there have been some pain points along the way, CenturyLink's Bill Walker says the journey has been worth it.

Bill Walker, CenturyLink

"We're finally retiring 1.0," said Walker, senior director of strategy and advancement for CenturyLink. "As we've developed it (NFV) over time, obviously the automation and orchestration has matured and it's gotten much better. Most of the products have not migrated. We are migrating the products and services from 1.0 into the new platform. But, they are both are running fine."

Walker said there is a challenge in a software lifecycle in regard to keeping all of the versions in synch, and reducing the diversity of combinations and permutations for testing. 

"Since our platform generations are looking like 18-24 month cycles, keeping two in production makes sense," he said. "A new platform release doesn’t mean 'Immediately retire the old one and migrate over all of the customers and applications running on the older one.' If there is a performance or feature requirement, then it is a business case decision to migrate some applications or customers."

Walker said the same services are available on the new platform for continuity. New customers could be on-boarded to the new platform, and new service launches will be implemented on the new platform only with the "migration of 'old' customer instances as a function of the platform retirement, and not a new platform launch."

He added, "This helps in big ways with stability and budgeting, introducing a 'cost of exit' that is not part of the 'cost of deployment.' (It also provides) better visibility into our cost of operations and asset management."

In addition to "a lot more" automation and orchestration, the latest implementation of NFV also enables a better customer experience, shorter time to market and less time to on-board customers, according to Walker.

"We actually have a tighter coupling between the network orchestration and automation pieces, and the NFV infrastructure so they can talk to each other a little cleaner," Walker said. "It lets us on-board customers a lot faster."

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CenturyLink's NFV journey has largely been done in-house with a few key acquisitions along the way. Using modular elements of ONAP, CenturyLink developed "Victor" as its network functions virtualization infrastructure (NFVi) orchestrator. Victor was designed to take CenturyLink's NFV capability and fully automate it from an end-to-end activation and management standpoint. Having it in place allowed CenturyLink to take a customer's service request and turn up a service within minutes within the network. 

CenturyLink has upgraded the Victor software and renamed it "Vino." CenturyLink is still using Victor in production while currently rolling out Vino. Walker said CenturyLink plans to put Vino into open source.

While Vino works on the hardware side, CenturyLink's SAO (Service Activation Orchestrator) is an internal "uber" software orchestrator, according to Walker.

"Having them be able speak to each other is pretty awesome," Walker said. "From a network side, if someone is ordering a network service that includes an NFV element, SAO could request down as a micro-orchestrator to VINO to on-board and connect a VNF. Likewise, if somebody orders a VNF-based service that includes, for example, MPLS, being able to request that upstream of VRF (virtual routing and forwarding) to a VLAN type operation should be automatic."

Having the network side and the software side communicate freely with each other also enables a single portal interface that improves the customer experience, Walker said. 

"They're not ordering a network object and then ordering a VNF object, they're ordering a service," Walker said. "The orchestrator kind of gave us the idea of being able to take a graph database—the graph image of a network connection of a service chain of how things connect together—and then build a visualizer around that and work from more of a growth model. It's a strictly productivity model of looking at the flows rather than looking at the connection."

While CenturyLink had NFV in place, SAO came over from the $34 billion Level 3 deal. In a similar vein, Level 3 boosted its SDN capabilities when it bought tw telecom four years ago.

Three years ago, CenturyLink bought a cloud control systems from a company called ElasticBox. Those cloud control systems are now central components of CenturyLink's SDN and NFV control infrastructure.

After CenturyLink bought Active Broadband Networks three years ago, it adopted an agile IT software approach to virtualization in order to reduce or eliminate some of the complexities that were associated with NFV.

NFV is not just opex

While NFV has vocal critics, CenturyLink has focused on using it for on demand services and new revenue rather than focusing on operational savings. Walker said he takes that approach when speaking with CenturyLink CTO Andrew Dugan.

"If I promise Andrew that I'm going to get $10 million in operational savings, he deducts that from my budget next year," Walker said. "You can't infinitely decrease your spend, but you can have new products and new services that have constant growth. Saving at one (operations) means would mean I save it once every year, but if I grow 10%, 20%, 30% of a certain target space, I can do that year after year, and that is accelerated growth. We do look at spend, we do look at operational efficiency, but it's efficiency, it's not something that's expected year over year."

Going forward, Walker said CenturyLink will continue to evolve its use of NFV, but it also needs to "stop behaving like it's 20 years ago" in order to reduce things like truck rolls.

"Yes, we want to eliminate the cause of truck rolls, but why don't we do things differently? Things like the universal CPE and some of the software-related elements," Walker said. "If I can fix them without a truck roll, or I can re-locate those to the CO rather than premise it starts to make total sense.

"I think we are finally to the point where maturity-wise NFV and SDN are part of what we do. It's not its own little domain of wizards and geniuses in the back room. I think it's a way that we implement networks, and a way that we procure and employ hardware. Whether that's a white box or an x86 box, it still goes through the same procurement process. It still goes through the same strategy and planning people. I think we are finally integrated to the point that it's just another way that we deliver our network."