Q&A—CenturyLink CTO Dugan outlines company road map and emerging technologies

CenturyLink CTO Andrew Dugan says the telco will launch a new ELAN service early next year. (Pixabay)

As the new CTO of CenturyLink, Andrew Dugan has a big to-do list that includes launching an ELAN service early next year and providing more cloud connectivity to enterprise customers.

After 19 years at Level 3, including over a year as its CTO, Dugan was named as CenturyLink's new CTO earlier this month. Dugan also recently was named to MEF's board of directors.

CenturyLink launched its Cloud Connect Dynamic Connections service last month, which included announcing that it was partnering with Amazon Web Services to enable real-time creation and deletion of private Ethernet connections to AWS via a portal or an API.

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"We are going to be expanding the cloud that we offer, that automatic connectivity, and we'll be rolling those out throughout next year," Dugan said in an interview with FierceTelecom. "We expect that we'll partner with the other larger cloud providers there.

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"Beyond that, we're going to continue to focus on building our NFV infrastructures so that we can enable more of our services using virtualized function and continue to enhance our overall digital experience with customers so that they can come to a portal and provision and manage their own services. We're not quite ready to announce the specifics of what's involved there, but that's a key focus for us from a technology perspective and company positioning perspective."

In this FierceTelecom Q&A, which was edited for length and clarity, Dugan talks about CenturyLink's NFV evolution, the company's use of containers and microservices and what else the telco industry needs to do going forward.

FierceTelecom: Where does CenturyLink stand on the use of Kubernetes, containers and microservices?

Andrew Dugan: For Kubernetes and containers, we have our own CenturyLink cloud. We do support different types of container strategies within that cloud. We do have that capability, and that's something that we'll continue to support. As it comes to microservices, that's more of an internal capability that we're leveraging. We certainly support APIs out to our partners and also APIs will be included in that as well to our customers. We do support APIs there too.

When I think about microservices, that's a way for us to build internal capabilities to support those APIs that we make available externally. And also to facilitate good systems architecture internally. When we look to build the capability within our systems stacks whether it's for SDN, control by virtualization infrastructure or other OSS/BSS capabilities, we're adopting a microservices approach to building those capabilities to make them more consumable internally and more manageable internally. So that is a key part of our systems development strategy.

FierceTelecom: What is CenturyLink's position on ONAP?

Dugan: We have used some elements of ONAP within some of our SDN systems. We haven't adopted the full ONAP framework, but we've used the components that are useful to us, specifically within our NFV control systems space. We've used some of those elements.

FierceTelecom: That's how CenturyLink came up with up with Victor?

Dugan: Victor is our network functions virtualization infrastructure (NFVi) controller.

FierceTelecom: CenturyLink has gone through several iterations of NFV. What role does Victor play in the latest implementation?

Dugan: We are simplifying and we're putting more automation in place with Victor. We've been using virtualized functions in different parts of network for quite some time, but what Victor brings to us is a higher level of dynamic control than we previously had, so that we can get flow through provisioning from a customer requesting a service to be activated within their network service. That can be triggered on demand and turned up within minutes within the network. That's where Victor's focused, to take that NFV capability and fully automate it from an end-to-end activation and management standpoint.

FierceTelecom: You've had several versions of NFV. Is NFV living up to its promise?

Dugan: Maybe. It all depends on what you think the promise of NFV is. I know that in the early days, NFV was promising to reduce the cost of networking. I don't think it has yet delivered on that promise, but if you believe the promise of NFV is to enable on demand services for customers without having to roll a technician to a customer site to install a piece of equipment, I do think NFV is in a position to aid and deliver on that promise.

FierceTelecom: Is there anything that you think the industry as a whole needs to do, or move faster on?

Dugan: I think we all would like to be moving faster, but I do believe the industry is progressing. But what do we need to do? I would say continue to work at it. That's across a number of dimensions. It has to do with collecting data across the infrastructure so that you've got data in a place where you can do the analytics, create the AI systems around looking at that data and understanding the patterns within it, and learning from those patterns. We're getting more practice at building out a stronger SDN control infrastructure. We're fortunate in that we've been doing that for a long time, and we have a good one.

I think the industry generally needs to just continue down that path of building systems that control their network infrastructure, and building that in from the beginning. Then, when it comes to NFV, I think it's just continued maturity across the whole industry supply chain there. The functions themselves being made available in standard ways, getting to standard service definitions, building the control infrastructure, there's a lot of work required to transform the industry, and I think carriers are progressing along that path. We just need to invest more time and effort into completing that development.

FierceTelecom: Part of the development is better onboarding of virtual network functions (VNFs)?

Dugan: It is. I don't think we would consider that to be the hard part right now. We can get a VNF running within our infrastructure within a short period of time, weeks, a small number of weeks. That I don't see as the hard part. It's all of the surrounding area around having the control infrastructure to plug that into. The operational tools and skill sets required to operate a virtualized infrastructure, the people training that goes along with that. Those tend to be the harder parts. Getting something running, I don't want to say it's easy, but it's easier than the other pieces.

FierceTelecom: Both Level 3 and CenturyLink made key deals over the years. Are there a few that standout in terms of building out the network or services that CenturyLink now has?

Dugan: Absolutely. TW Telecom provided a big lift to Level 3 in its SDN control infrastructure. TW Telecom was a leader in internet services, and a leader in building those SDN control systems. That forms a lot of the core of our control systems today through CenturyLink.

The other is CenturyLink acquired the cloud control systems from a company called ElasticBox. Those cloud control systems are also a central component of our SDN and the future of our NFV control infrastructure as well. I would say those are two that I would call out that brought pretty sophisticated control systems to the table for CenturyLink.

FierceTelecom: A cornerstone of CenturyLink's virtualization effort is its Programmable Services Backbone (PSB), which was first launched in 2015 and then relaunched in March. How is CenturyLink leveraging PSB?

Dugan: We're on our third generational program mobile services backbone. We're in the process of deploying more of that infrastructure, and rolling some of the services off of the older versions of PSB onto it. That platform, we expect, will be one of the places where we can run virtualized functions. When a customer wants to run a firewall, they should be able to run it on premise. They should be able to run it at the edge of the network and they should be able to run it in the cloud. They should just be able to select a location and that same virtualization control system should be able to turn it up anywhere that the customer wants to have it activated. The PSB, as our edge compute function at the edge of our backbone, is a component of that. That's how we'll be leveraging it.