CenturyLink, Verizon, XO say reliability is challenge in implementing SDN, NFV

DALLAS -- CenturyLink (NYSE: CTL), Verizon (NYSE: VZ) and XO Communications are chasing the SDN and NFV path for their networks, but the challenge for embedded providers in making this transition is maintaining reliability, particularly for business customers.

During a Tuesday afternoon panel at the TIA 2016 trade show here called "Carriers Speak on NFV/SDN Plans," these service providers said unlike dot-com companies that have embraced virtual technologies, the transition requires the coordination of multiple moving parts.

Take Verizon: When the service provider initially announced its intent to embrace SDN in 2015, the telco said the initial focus would be on migrating legacy elements and functions onto software-based platforms.

To conduct that transition, it is working with its network partners to identify functions that can be moved into software-based architecture.

Andrew Ray, director of planning of network support systems for Verizon, said that the web-based world is more ahead on the virtualization path, but they don't have an embedded base of services.

"As you're decoupling these monolithic hardware and software solutions you get from your suppliers and forcing them into one environment, you have to change your business model, you have to change your operations model, and adopt Dev Ops," Ray said. "These are things that the web-based world has gone down this path much earlier than the telecom world."

Ray added a transition to SDN can't interrupt real-time stateful applications like voice.

"The challenge is, and everyone who is a telco provider will understand, is a web-based company will say 'we have embraced Dev Ops and if it goes down for 10 seconds who cares,'" Ray said. "For us you're talking interoperability between next-gen networks, legacy networks, stateful call processing so 10 seconds means a lot to a stateful call."

CenturyLink, which is also still in the early stages of deploying NFV and SDN, agrees. The service provider has equipped over 36 locations in multiple geographies with its virtual network services (VNS).

It also plans to have full global virtualization of its IP core network and data centers by 2018.

But even with all of that going on in its transition, Timothy Doolittle, director of IP network and systems for CenturyLink, said that it is still trying to find the right transition path.

"We haven't done that yet," Doolittle said. "We know we need to change it and there's a lot of tension between the new and the old way and we haven't yet cracked that whip."

XO Communications, which is in the process of being acquired by Verizon, is in a similar situation.

Unlike CenturyLink and Verizon, XO only serves business customers and it can't run the risk of a customer's mission critical applications going down.

"We're in the same place and have not solved that problem yet," said Matt Bateman, senior network architect for XO Communications. "One of the things that's going to be a selling position for legacy telcos is our inherent reliability and stability, so we have to be careful how to move into these spaces and can't throw out something that might fail."

Despite the reliability issues, the panelists agreed that the eventual value proposition of migrating to SDN and NFV is that they will gain increased agility.

This agility allows service providers to more rapidly respond and implement services quicker for customers. Following the example set by AT&T (NYSE: T) with its network on demand service, service providers overall could accelerate service activation times.

Bateman said that while gaining the agility that SDN and software-based control to enhance service delivery times is the ultimate goal, the reality is still a ways away.

"For us, it's a very clear value proposition, but it's also a fair ways off. Once you put everything under software control you can change and innovate at a much more rapid pace," Bateman said. "There's two parts of agility: one is to develop new services more quickly and the other is once we have a service in the market we can turn it up more quickly."

Complementing the service activation time intervals, Doolittle said service providers can gain operational cost savings, eventually.

"It turns out that some of the costs you incur with an SDN model are much, much less," Doolittle said. "We do have at CenturyLink one network where we have been using a model where we are able to turn up services in minutes."

Doolittle added that "as carriers we really have to do this because the competition is doing it and you have to figure out how to do it without compromising that service."

Related articles:
Verizon teams with Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Juniper and Nokia on SDN push
Verizon acquires XO's fiber business for $1.8B, feeding enterprise services, wireless backhaul efforts
CenturyLink's Feger: We have deployed SDN, NFV in 36 network locations