CenturyLink’s Walker sums up SDN and NFV in one word: disruptive

CenturyLink's Bill Walker discussed the company's move to SDN and NFV.

DENVER—CenturyLink’s Bill Walker described the operator’s move to software and network virtualization, through the application of software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV), as a completely disruptive endeavor—one that has affected virtually every level of his company’s operations.

Moreover, Walker said in comments here at the NFV & Carrier SDN event that SDN and NFV technologies will “change how people use the network.”

CenturyLink, of course, has been vocal about its transition to virtualized services—the company has said that it has virtualized fully 60% of its POPs. But, as Walker explained, that work wasn’t smooth or easy. And he should know; Walker is CenturyLink’s director of IT architecture for NFV, SDN and cloud.

For example, Walker said that CenturyLink’s systems previously would issue an automatic alert to a technician when a function would fail, so that the technician could find and fix the error. However, that system no longer works in a virtualized environment, Walker explained, because some of its latest software-powered services can automatically heal themselves. Thus, he said, the company’s systems would still send out a technician alert despite the fact that the software-powered service could resolve the error within seconds. “Now we have to change an operational flow that’s been there for 20-30 years,” he said. “We’re learning together and building a devops environment.”

Nonetheless, Walker said the company’s move to SDN and NFV is a worthwhile effort, despite the fact that it requires so much work and change, mainly because it allows operators to both save money and more quickly launch new services. Indeed, Walker pointed out that CenturyLink previously would spend 6-18 months developing new services, whereas today it can run through three different upgrades to a service in a virtualized environment in that same time frame.

Further, Walker predicted that customer demand for bandwidth would continue to rise, particularly as small cells and 5G hit the scene. “People will find ways to consume whatever bandwidth we give them,” he said—hinting that 10 Gbps home internet service is on the near horizon.

Finally, Walker offered some tips for companies entering the SDN and NFV space, noting that companies need to review constantly, revise regularly, and revise on-demand. “You have to stay agile,” he said.

Specifically, Walker said that carriers and companies should avoid standardizing on explicit technologies, but should have some kind of service architecture that they’re developing around. He added that companies should work on developing products that are “kind of close” to what customers need, rather than creating “perfect products”—and then should iterate on those efforts. And he said that, at some point, those developing services need to “declare a success at some point,” rather than continually revising on their work. He said that development teams need to agree on a 1.0 version of a virtualized product or service, so that they can take a break and avoid burning out.