Here's my Real CTO conversation with Aamir Hussain of CenturyLink.

Prayson: Aamir, I appreciate your time today. Can you tell us a little bit about CenturyLink’s role in the NFV transformation?

Aamir: You know, we look at technologies like software defined networking and network functions virtualization as means to bringing services to our customer when they want, where they want — on their terms. And it’s all about ease of use in their on-boarding. It’s less about technology.

We’ve been at it for the last two-and-a-half years. And you have seen some recent press about our ambitions going forward.

But today we are deployed in close to 40 national IP POPs. And in those locations our customers can buy a virtualized firewall from us. We have virtualized CDN services turned on that we use for our own TV service. And we will continue to expand and build upon that success over time.

And then we are enabling software defined networking, network functions virtualization and other things on top of that as well.

Prayson: CenturyLink has been at NFV longer than most people that are now trying to drive down this path. During that time, what are the obstacles that you have overcome? What are you now working to overcome?

Aamir: One of the biggest obstacles in this space is nothing is standard, and we have had to work through that. As a telco we have acquired a lot of companies in the past, and now we have also transformed to a hybrid IT company. And in that process we’ve got assets from multiple vendors in our network. And each vendor has their own NFV/SDN story. They come with their own orchestrator. They come with their own controller.

It took a little bit of time for us to work through the ecosystem, and define our architecture and open APIs that others can connect to so that we have a single orchestration platform orchestrating around different services.

So that was one challenge, which I think we have overcome.

The other biggest challenge that we have is when you talk about virtualization of a network service, you also have to understand that your business, your organization, your processes. Your skill set must actually be able to deal with that technology. And it’s a mindset and cultural change on what we do.

We are working with our network operations team to ensure that they are able to manage a virtualized service. We are working with our planning team to ensure that they are able to plan effectively for that. And we are also educating our customers and partners to ensure that they understand what we are talking about and what we are doing, and what is the positive impact that they will see by getting that type of service from us.

Prayson: You mentioned some aggressive goals. Carol Wilson at Light Reading reported that, “CenturyLink will have 40 percent of its global IP core network locations virtualized this year with full global virtualization coverage in its IP core network and data centers plan by 2018.” That’s a very aggressive goal.

You’ve mentioned some of the work that you’ve already done, both internally with your various groups as well as talking to suppliers. Have you put all the changes in place that you need to achieve those goals? Do you have additional changes that you have to put in place? And are those internal or external, or both?

Aamir: Let me just first clarify what I told Carol. What I was talking about is ensuring we upgrade 100 percent of our core IP POPs. We’ve got about 86 of them worldwide. Internally, we call this upgrade programmable service backbone pod, and we have already put it in close to 40 percent of those today. And in the next two or three years we’ll complete it all. So every major IP POP will have the programmable service backbone pod, essentially virtualizing things like WAN and adding new virtualized services.

It doesn’t mean that we will virtualize the backbone because you cannot virtualize that. So that will stay as is. It’s the endpoints that, in the form of NVPN, that could be provided to our customers on a virtualized connection over an IPSEC tunnel, giving them the same flexibility and same quality of service, and the same security that they have on an MPLS VPN in a much more effective and timely fashion than they can get today. So that’s what I meant.

Now, what do we need to get there? Obviously, a lot of infrastructure work is done. We continue to build services. We virtualize things like CP and other things, virtualize routing CP. There’s a whole bunch of things in the works.

At the same time, we are making sure that we are changing internally. As I mentioned earlier, the planning organizations are getting ready. The network operations organization and functions are being enhanced to understand what it means to work in a virtualized network in a virtualized world. All the tools and capabilities that we have today are getting enhanced to support our end customers.

It also means that we are taking this service and putting more stuff in the cloud so that when the customers come to buy a data center service from us, a co-lo service from us, a cloud service from us, it’s all available through the same interface — point, click and drag. And that requires some changes internally also. We’ve made some changes already in our organization. We’ll continue to change our processes, skill sets and organization to better align ourselves in the virtualized world.

But it’s a three- to five-year process. We are literally in late year two of this process. We’ve got a couple more years to go before this thing is completed.

Prayson: You started out talking about how your goal here was to give end users the services that they want when they want them. And, presumably, that also means how they want to pay for them, which in most cases is pay-as-you-go. I think that means that you have to be working with your suppliers to get them to change how they provide software and equipment to you on a commercial basis, i.e. the monetization or licensing.

Are you finding that they are engaging with you and being open to new shared risk/shared reward models?

Aamir: Yes, absolutely. And there are two sets of suppliers. There are the bigger suppliers and there are start-ups. And they are both very open to work with different models. So if they are going to put out on an x86 device, some will work on revenue shares, some will work licensing, some will work on CAPEX.

It’s an open game right now. So we are just trying to work with them to figure out what works best for us and our customers in the long run.

Prayson: You’ve already made tremendous progress in terms of providing virtualized services to your customers. Do you feel that NFV is now mainstream for networks like yours? Are you seeing that other operators are able to effectively deploy it now? And, if not now, when?

Aamir: I wouldn’t call it really mainstream because NFV is one of the tools in the toolbox. There will be customers who would want a physical connection. There will be customers who will want full protection and better SLAs. And they will be under different regulatory regimes to do things differently for privacy and other considerations.

As far as how mature the technology is, it is pretty mature. It will continue to get mature.

I would say that full deployment in the carrier world is still at least a couple of years out. And it’s all about who gets the best service and ease of use to the customer at a cost point that makes sense to them. That is who will win.

But I wouldn’t say that this service will completely replace legacy service. MPLS VPNs and layer two services will be out there and will have their role in this play, as well as software defined networking and network function virtualization. They will co-exist for a period of time.

Prayson: I think you’re absolutely right. Today we see things like T-1s and frame relay and ATM are still deployed in the network. So it’s hard to turn anything down. I do see a tremendous migration going on powered by the innovation that you’re talking about.

As you’ve been working with your customers to roll out these new virtualized services, what’s the most surprising or unexpected thing that you’ve seen?

Aamir: I think customers are surprised to see how fast these services can turn on as compared to what we would do on a legacy product. And the flexibility that they have to turn services up and down when they want it. They get surprised when they see that flexibility.

Prayson: And do you feel like that’s a competitive advantage for you to be able to offer those types of services?

Aamir: Absolutely.

Prayson: Is it enough to make people move away from other service providers?

Aamir: I think that question really depends on the quality of service, support and overall value proposition. Whoever provides that will get the customer. CenturyLink is committed to SDN and NFV. When we started this journey three years ago, we were quietly talking internally about it. But now we feel we are at a point that we can talk about our plans and what we are doing.

I will be attending the NIA event in Dublin and we’ll probably highlight some of what we talk about there as well. But we are committed to it, and will continue to invest in that space.

Prayson: We look forward to hearing more. Thanks, Aamir. We do appreciate your time today.