CenturyLink's Feger: We're years away from where SDN saves the world

WASHINGTON, D.C.--CenturyLink's (NYSE: CTL) vice president of network strategy and development James Feger told TIA 2013 attendees here that he sees the utility of software defined networking (SDN), but he's realistic about the role it can play in the telco's network today.

He likens the evolution of SDN to the way MPLS went from being an enabler for the network to serve a product, but not as a product.   

"Over time we have transitioned to where if I [tell] someone 'I will sell you a MPLS network' they automatically apply that to a VPN," Feger said. "With SDN we're going down the same path where you say 'I want to sell the customer SDN,' but what we're really saying is 'we want to give our customer the ability to provide ubiquity, contextual, programmable and personal capabilities.'"

Feger added that they will be able to provide these new elements to user by "offering an environment in the network where the user takes control, which is very scary for us."

While there is a growing base of vendors and service providers have SDN products, the issue for large telcos like CenturyLink in using SDN is how to scale it across a large network.

Built through the acquisitions of Embarq, Qwest and Savvis, CenturyLink has established itself as the third largest telco with a 210,000-route-mile fiber network.

"There are several companies here today that have SDN products that you can purchase, and several companies that have SDN-enabled networks you can get service from, but if you look at it from a grand scale perspective when you're talking about thousands of routers and switches miles and ten of thousands of route miles, you don't just turn SDN on," Feger said. "The reality is that we're several years away from an environment where SDN saves the world as everybody is proclaiming."

Working in tandem with SDN is Network Function Virtualization (NFV), which helps service provider's deploy software-based network functions and services.

SDN and NFV are different, but when they are used in tandem they can provide various benefits.

"When you compare NFV and SDN, they are not the same thing, but they go together very well," Feger said. "They can operate independently, but if you work with them together you get a much greater experience."

A combination of NFV and SDN will prove to be beneficial in three areas, including Content Delivery Network (CDN) providers in a virtualized cloud environment, firewall services in a virtualized cloud environment, and--as virtual machines improve--possibly virtualizing edge routing.

With NFV and SDN, a service provider could provide value-added services such as home automation and video services to customers that are outside of its network territory.

"Imagine a world where if you have a customer in a certain location and you can't serve them today, but you have a data center where you can deploy a virtual machine that gives you a router function--all of a sudden you become an over the top player to your peers," Feger said.

The other issue that will have to be overcome is dealing with vendors that are developing SDN controllers, which are applications that manage flow control to enable intelligent networking. 

Feger said that while a number of these vendors proclaim they support the openness of SDN, they are also building their own products.

"Every vendor on the planet, even if they don't do anything with routers or switches, says they participate in SDN and support the openness that SDN brings us," Feger said. "Then they turn around and say in the next breath and say they are building their own controller."

Feger added that while there will be companies that will offer free SDN controllers, but those that are building their own infrastructure will offer better features.

Despite the near-term scale issues, the broader positive note is that the industry coalition around NFV and SDN is quite strong.

"This is one of the first times as an industry regardless of what your position in the industry is, state a goal and work together to get there," Feger said. "The NFV and SDN space is one where there's just too much momentum behind and I don't think anyone is going to stand up and wave their hands and say 'this is a bad idea.'"

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