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12 December 2019

CenturyLink adds software-defined storage, deepens AWS alliance

Not all the telco announcements at re:Invent were about Wavelengths. US telco CenturyLink has been particularly active in the edge market and used the show to extend its services with a managed storage offering called CenturyLink Network Storage.

This is built on a software-defined storage technology devised by NetApp, and the new enterprise offering is the biggest concrete result so far of the operator’s “several hundred million dollar” investment in edge computing infrastructure and services, announced in August as a way to monetize its sites in various regions of the USA and carve out a niche in the edge cloud market.

The service allows companies to locate storage where it is most useful, and supports the fastest response times, by being close to where data is created and consumed. Dave Shacochis, VP of product management for hybrid IT solutions at CenturyLink, said: “The service allows Shacochis us to add storage protocols, and storage services become one of those virtualized network functions to deliver and store general purpose data,.”

The fact that CenturyLink made its announcement at re:Invent, AWS’s annual conference, suggests that it does not want to be competitive with the cloud giant. In fact, the telco offers managed AWS services to its customers already, and is now looking to add new edge-based capabilities to enhance the value to enterprises – but also to enhance its value to the AWS partnership, by bringing its edge locations and micro-data centers to the party.

CenturyLink is also considering support for AWS Outposts, which delivers on-premises edge computing, storage and connectivity. One of the dilemmas for the webscalers, as the cloud gets increasingly dispersed and distributed, is how far they want to invest, themselves, in all those edge locations. Their economics have rested heavily on a high degree of centralization of infrastructure to achieve huge economies of scale, which would be compromised by building out a global edge network. So telco partners, with their sites and connectivity, can help the webscalers extend their reach without building everything themselves, giving the operators a better role in the cloud ecosystem than they have managed to date.

“We think of the whole AWS Outposts initiative as very complementary to everything we’re doing at the moment,” Shacochis told SDxCentral. “We’re talking to a few customers now about supporting AWS Outposts inside those edge computing facilities, and we’re doing a lot of deep discussions with AWS about their Outpost initiative — especially around all the networking options”, since high quality, reliable connectivity will be crucial to all edge strategies, especially services that need low latency or high availability.

“We’re also getting a lot of those edge computing facilities inside our network certified as a host location,” he added, which will enable CenturyLink to place Outposts in its network and provide them as managed edge locations to enterprise customers, so that those companies can avoid the expense of deploying their own edge on-premise.

The new developments build on a strategy first unveiled in August. Having made its pledge to make investments worth “several hundred million dollars” in edge compute infrastructure and services, following a successful US-based trial, CenturyLink said it would kick off by building 100 new edge sites, with a target of focusing on applications which require latency of 5ms or lower. It plans to offer a range of offerings including infrastructure-as-a-service and managed services.

“Customers are increasingly coming to us for help with applications where latency, bandwidth and geography are critical considerations,” said Paul Savill, SVP of product management, at the time. “This investment creates the platform for CenturyLink to enable enterprises, hyperscalers, wireless carriers and system integrators with the technology elements to drive years of innovation where workloads get placed closer to customers’ digital interactions.”

The plan will not be confined to the USA, if the business model proves workable.  CenturyLink has a global network of 450,000 route miles of fiber, connecting over 2,200 public and private data centers and over 150,000 on-net enterprise buildings; and it is extending network colocation deals in many markets to increase access to infrastructure and allow customers to run distributed cloud workloads close to the edge of the network.

However, although CenturyLink has been seen as a frontrunner in digital infrastructure, it caused confusion when CTO Andrew Dugan appeared to downplay the commitment to virtualizing the network – usually seen as essential to achieving at-scale distributed cloud infrastructure with viable costs.

Speaking at a Cowen and Co investor event earlier in the year, Dugan was critical of AT&T’s pledge to virtualize 75% of its network functions by the end of 2020. “I’d like to figure out what AT&T means by 75% virtualization,” he said. “I don’t get it. The concept of virtualizing the core router or an optical platform, that’s a lot of cost of your network to provide services. We’re not working on virtualizing that stuff.”

In reality, CenturyLink’s approach contrasts in timing rather than belief in, eventually, turning the network into software running on cloud infrastructure. Last year, the telco’s senior director of strategy and advancement, Bill Walker, said that his firm would not take a big bang approach like AT&T, but would digitalize its platforms step by step according to business case. He said: “We don’t convert the legacy until we get our money out of it. So, unless we see a viable need or business case to replace how we manage a core network, it’s not going to be virtualized quickly.”