After months of trials, CenturyLink joined the ranks of the SD-WAN providers when the telco launched its version of the service in June.
Eric Barrett, senior director, network product management for CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL), said his company was getting RFIs and RFPs from all types of enterprises, from Fortune 1000 companies to retail companies and banks that need better bandwidth at multiple locations. (See CenturyLink Throws Hat in SD-WAN Ring.)
At CenturyLink, Barrett oversees the company's MPLS VPN and SDN services, and Internet and data center networking for enterprises. In addition to SD-WAN, he is currently focused on the convergence of CenturyLink's network and cloud computing. While at Masergy Communications about 17 years ago, he helped launch one of the first greenfield MPSL VPN services in the US. He's worked for Savvis and CenturyLink for the past ten years.
In the first part of this Q&A with Telco Transformation, Barrett talked about the benefits of SD-WAN to his company's customers and why taking a multi-tenant approach was key to CenturyLink's offering. (Barrett's answers were lightly edited for length.)
Telco Transformation: CenturyLink has been working on SD-WAN since late last year -- how big is this launch for you and your company?
Eric Barrett: It's probably the most exciting thing that's happened in the network business, on the WAN side of things, since MPLS emerged. Probably cloud computing was the biggest impact, and that's part of the story of SD-WAN. It starts with cloud computing, in part because cloud computing has opened up the avenue for a whole lot of applications that our end users are getting flooded with.
TT: How will your customers utilize and benefit from SD-WAN?
EB: You think about the problems that we're really solving here. Our customers, especially the ones that have small branch offices, like retail locations, retail banks and service firms, are getting flooded with requirements from all over the business. Typically these branch locations, in the MPLS world, have been serviced by T1s, which is 1.5 Mbit/s. With all of the devices, video surveillance, analytics, digital signage and video conferencing, that's just no longer sufficient.
The problem is upgrading from a 1.5 Mbit/s T1 to the bandwidth you need on an MPLS network... that might be over 20 Mbit/s fairly easily. It's going to cost you three times what you're paying for a T1. That's really what's driving this. All of those applications are killing the bandwidth, and the price to upgrade is too high. The emergence of broadband is the first dynamic that has shifted the mindset.
TT: So what is the second dynamic?
EB: The second dynamic for SD-WAN is from the software side of things. SD-WAN, like cloud computing, has lots of different definitions, but at its heart it's really just software. The combination of software, tool sets, and broadband are really what's opened the door and made this such a dynamic and interesting story for so many people. What we're doing is we're solving for both the broadband problem and the software problem in our solution. We understand that while we have an MPLS network, and while we have lots of customers on that -- we're third in market in the US -- we've got to be able to facilitate customers' needs no matter what the solution is at that time. If it's somebody else's broadband connection, we have to help them get that.
TT: And on that note, you do have agreements in place with other broadband providers?
EB: We've done contracts with Charter, Cox, Time Warner and Comcast where we'll resell their broadband service and take management of that for our customers. That was step one.
Step two, we found a partner that had the software tools we needed. We did a bake-off against a lot of different SD-WAN providers, and we found one that was honestly pretty far above where the others were, and that was Versa Networks. Versa is a multi-tenant solution, which was one of the key drivers. It's built by a lot of the guys who did the JUNOS OS for Juniper. They get networking. That was a key component.
A lot of the other [SD-WAN] providers that were born over the cloud didn't get the network world, and almost went too far past what our customers can relate to and understand.
TT: There are a lot of different flavors of SD-WAN. Is Versa the only vendor you plan on working with?
EB: So here's our plan... We can't ignore some of the big names like Cisco that are doing stuff here, and we have partnerships with them. We've always maintained a multivendor solution. That's been a philosophy of ours. You look at our MPLS side, and we have different vendors there. We've got Cisco and we've got Alcatel-Lucent. So we're going to add additional SD-WAN providers. Cisco is one that we definitely will [add], and we've also got Viptala in the lab as well.
TT: Can you explain why multi-tenancy is so important to your SD-WAN offering?
EB: It's going to be a scale problem over time. With Versa we were right out of the gate with multi-tenant, so I think it's a better hit for the masses than some of the others. I think multi-tenancy is on the roadmap of a lot of those other guys, but they're not there yet. Just from history, I know starting out with multi-tenancy is easier than trying to retro multi-tenancy into an existing solution. We knew multi-tenancy was going to be big for us, but we didn't realize how big it was going to be for the customers.
TT: How does multi-tenancy work and what are the use cases?
EB: There are two good use case examples. One of our first proof-of-concepts was a partner of ours, so by nature they go and sell to multiple customers. They need multi-tenancy. They're able to take the platform that we have, provide it to 10, 20, 30, whatever customers they have, and manage it all from one single user interface. That multi-tenancy became very key there.
The other place that I think was more surprising for us, was in the fact that these large retailers -- think about restaurants, they're franchises in a lot of cases -- that have different user groups within their hundreds, thousands, whatever sites. They need that multi-tenancy as well. Being able to set up multi-tenant environments within one single user interface has been huge for them. From our perspective, we think that's probably a big differentiator compared to the others that are trying to move into the model that we're moving into.
The others that have moved into this management model have chosen vendors that do not have multi-tenancy. That means they've got to build a controller and a director infrastructure per customer, which almost turns into a professional services type of build every single sale. I think we've built a mass-market product, and I haven't seen anybody else that's done that yet. I'd like to say it was all intentional. Some of it we dumb lucked into, but I'll take it.
TT: You started proof-of-concept trials in the fourth quarter of last year, what has been the customers' reaction to your SD-WAN?
EB: This is huge because our customers are already aware of it. They're hearing about it from vendor relationships that they have with hardware and software players. They're hearing about it from people like us. They're hearing about the press. They're hearing about it from analysts, so there's almost no outreach from our perspective at this point. It's all them coming to us. Internally I've been calling this a "Category 5," like in the hurricane system. This is a Category 5 in the network space.
— Mike Robuck, Editor, Telco Transformation