Like most other major telecom players, CenturyLink found its ability to streamline operations frustrated by the need to support multiple network management systems for specific vendor boxes. The third-largest US telecom network operator decided to take a proactive approach that has since paid off for both CenturyLink and other Ethernet service providers.
"We decided to start with the Ethernet space and develop a common API language using the concept of the MEF [MEF ] definitions," explains James Feger, VP, network strategy and development, at CenturyLink Inc. (NYSE: CTL). "So the idea was to have an API construct for how we would like to manage an e-line service or an e-LAN service."
This kind of open API would not only make it possible for an operator to swap out one vendor's box for another's without major backend heartburn, but had the potential to solve an industry-wide problem: provisioning service across networks without undue pain for customers.
"We all have the same problem: carrier-to-carrier Ethernet services. That is a challenge for all of us today," he says. "If a customer has all their locations on my network, that's one type of experience for the customer. As soon as we have to go to a third-party carrier of circuits, it's a different experience for the customer. So this type of development makes a more seamless approach. And that gives us a chance to delight the customer, which is what we are all about."
The first step was getting vendors on board: CenturyLink called its top 11 hardware vendors in the Ethernet space to the table and pitched the idea of developing common APIs that would run on an Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) network management stack -- not just because it was good for CenturyLink, but also because it's good for the vendors themselves. (See CenturyLink, Ericsson Leverage Legacy for Agile IT and CenturyLink Drives a Nail Into Osmine’s Coffin.)
"The thinking is, it will make things easier for the vendors because Ericsson is going to build this stack that they are likely to go out and market to other companies, so automatically [the vendors] will have an 'in' with those companies getting their devices certified quickly," Feger says. "It becomes a platform for doing carrier-to-carrier style network services for Ethernet."
CenturyLink is now working with those 11 vendors, who are implementing the open APIs into their code and element management systems. Ericsson has implemented it into its management stack at the network management layer, Feger says, and that means it is now possible to incorporate any box from a vendor that is Carrier Ethernet 2.0 certified by the MEF and has this API set as part of it, with minimal backend issues.
Sharing the wealth
But CenturyLink went one step further: The carrier took its open API set to the MEF, where it was approved 25-1 and incorporated into that organization's new Third Network or network-as-a-service plan. (See MEF: New Initiatives Tied to Existing Standards Groups.)
"The reason for making it open is that we want to try to prevent any one vendor from trying to stray too far and getting us into another proprietary environment," Feger says. "We needed to get it into a standard -- we couldn't make it about CenturyLink."
The process itself of producing the APIs was made much simpler by the choice of a common language, to which the vendors agreed. Using MEF definitions made sense because the APIs were all at the Ethernet layer and based on CE 2.0, "so it seemed like a natural marriage or transition to take it to the MEF and say 'Here's what we've done and we want to share it,'" he says.
The common language "eliminated the noise potential" and the vendors themselves choose to target CE 2.0 devices, because the equipment would all be processing in a similar fashion.
"Where things get a little bit different is if there are very specific things they are doing that are outside CE 2.0, then what you look at for that is you may venture into more generic APIs," Feger says. "I don't think it's super-challenging from an industry standpoint -- the different vendors worked with us really well in a very collaborative fashion. They saw the value in solving this network management challenge we face. Most of their customers are in multi-vendor environments, so it makes it easier for them now to position their gear."
Does going get tougher?
The MEF has said its next steps involve solving similar issues at the optical and IP layers and Feger admits those represent a greater challenge.
"I think it becomes a little bit more challenging when you start talking about Layer 3 definitions, for example," he says. "There are a lot of different ways to slice that."
And those problems may be addressed by other standards groups as well, creating a decision for carriers to make about which standards group to rely on for what, "because there clearly is overlap," Feger states. "In the Ethernet space, it is pretty easy. As you move up the stack, it gets a little more cloudy."
Still, the problems are solvable with collaboration between operators, standards groups and vendors, and the CenturyLink exec believes this is a time in which there is a greater cooperative spirit within the telecom segment than perhaps there has been in the past.
"With the spirit of what the industry is trying to do now, it is much more collaborative than it's ever been," Feger says. "Getting the level of agreement we need is not as big a deal as it would have been a few years ago."
That doesn't mean some players won't try to protect what they see as their competitive advantage. But the core pieces of technology -- the arms in the arms race -- are universal, he says. Where the real differentiation will come is in building the customer experience on top of these more open platforms.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading