CenturyLink and Akamai eye edge market and 5G partnerships

Many kinds of service providers are converging on the opportunity offered by combining next generation connectivity and content delivery, with edge cloud infrastructure. Wireline telcos, cloud providers, content delivery network (CDN) companies and mobile operators are all keen to expand their business into new applications which are enabled or enhanced by bringing data processing and connectivity close to the end user.

That will make it a tough market in which to succeed for any one company, and over time the best chances will come to those MNOs which leverage a combination of 5G, their own edge locations (such as cell sites), and partnerships with the controllers of other assets. Cloud providers like Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure are obvious candidates, but MNOs should also keep an eye on the activities of wireline operators and CDN companies.

Developments in the past couple of weeks, from US telco CenturyLink and from CDN major Akamai, highlight the potential for such potential partners to add value, and reduce cost, in the MNO proposition.

CenturyLink has pledged to make investments worth “several hundred million dollars” in edge compute infrastructure and services following a successful US-based trial. It will 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. “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 recent Cowen and Co investor event, 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.”

Dugan would not put a percentage on the functions CenturyLink would virtualize over the coming few years. “When you build out an NFV platform, you have the cost of the white box, you have the cost of the management or virtualization software that runs within the white box, and you have the cost of the virtual functions themselves,” he said. “If you’re running one or two applications on premise, it’s not cheaper. The real value from NFV comes in the flexibility that it provides you to be able to put a box out there and be able to turn up and turn down services. It’s not a capex reduction. It’s a reduction in operating costs because you’re not having to roll trucks and put boxes out.”

The company has not announced its suppliers for its digital networks, though established vendors include Adtran, for fixed network equipment; Versa Networks for SD-WAN; Infinera for packet switching nodes; and Indian managed services group Velankani for service orchestration. The last of these provides orchestration across order management, resources management, billing and service provisioning. Velankani has come up with a neat idea of mapping broadband operator capex into the real world with its NOCPlan, which is being used at another US telco, Windstream Communications.

CenturyLink, as of last year, became an active contributor to the open source community by donating its NFVi orchestration process to the ONAP (Open Network Automation Protocol) platform. It has extracted the Service Logic Interpreter from a module of the ONAP and repackaged that logic as part of its NFV orchestration process, taking it out of OpenDaylight, and back into Java. It codenamed the result Victor, and has released its work into open source, though it has not joined ONAP formally.

At the time, the company revealed its pragmatic approach to virtualization again. “We continue to consider it, but we haven’t used a lot of the tooling and so if you are not really using the tooling then it limits the benefit of joining,” said Adam Dunstan, VP of NFV/SDN engineering, in an interview. “ONAP is a big complex system and putting aside opinions on the whole thing, CenturyLink already has a big complex system. Getting it all to fit together is a challenge.”

Victor is a microservice that runs inside containers and its job is “to do one thing and one thing well – spin up something automatically and let the system know that happened, and then his job is done”. This uses the same tooling as ONAP to enable operators to create a service model, which then generates an associated user interface and web services.

Of course, this comes full circle to enabling video streaming services. Jack Pugaczewski, distinguished architect at CenturyLink, has said of Victor: “So if we want to move to a Netflix or Amazon sort of customer experience where the customer spends 30 to 90 seconds activating a service, just like you would to get a movie, we have to have automation. These APIs and the corresponding software that’s being built is going to give our customers that 30-90 second Netflix or Amazon experience instead of 30-90 days.”

Meanwhile, CDN giant Akamai is looking for an influential role in edge computing for 5G.

CEO Tom Leighton told the earnings call, announcing its most recent quarterly results:

“I do think people are really starting to realize just how important our edge platform is. And I think 5G is going to help enable a lot of these applications that people are talking about now.”

Like other CDN companies, Akamai is keen to point out that CDN has been based on edge concepts for two decades (though not, of course, on the edge cloud platforms which make the edge open and scalable). Recently, Akamai has been expanding beyond its core business into the edge-based enterprise with its IoT Edge Connect product, which enables secure processing close to the edge for IoT customers.

Akamai Fellow Vinay Kanitkar told LightReading that the company is seeking a differentiated and high value role in a crowded value chain by contributing to edge standards and by working with 5G operators, both of which will help it to influence the direction of the architecture. He claims Akamai’s edge computing designs can reduce latency on wireless networks from 70-100 milliseconds down to 10ms. That will help extend current CDN services into cloud and 5G infrastructure, while keeping core services – high quality video delivery – the same. The next step would be to work with 5G operators to develop new services based on their own cloud computing instances, which Akamai would run at edge locations. That would see the CDN player “essentially acting as the operating system for that application”.