Windstream Bets on SDN for Biz Success

Carol Wilson
News Analysis
Carol Wilson, Editor-at-large

Windstream is primarily known in the US telecom market in a couple of ways: First, as a local service provider in many smaller urban and rural markets and second, as the company that pioneered the notion of selling off physical network assets to be operated separately from services and technology.

Windstream Communications Inc. (Nasdaq: WIN) has been steadily expanding its business services over the last couple of years, however, and with its current network transformation process, Windstream intends to become a more aggressive player on that front. The network operator is using software-defined networking to bring new capabilities to companies looking to make the transition from traditional voice and data services to new things such as SD-WAN and Unified Communications as-a-service (UCaaS), supporting the move to the cloud with new flexibility.

Many of Windstream's business customers are eager to make the transition to the digital realm, and looking to connect with their own customers in multiple ways, says Mike Frane, vice president of product management. "And then we ask a very basic question, 'Is your network ready?' and we generally get two answers: 'No' or 'I don't know.' What we are trying to do is really helping them bridge that gap between where they are today with the network, which frankly is a network that wasn't designed for flexibility or a cloud application model, to where they have to get to in order to realize all of the other capabilities that they are looking to roll out."

Windstream's Mike Frane
Windstream's Mike Frane

SDN-orchestrated waves
In order to do that, Windstream is on its own network journey, deploying SDN in its transport network with an eye for doing intent-based provisioning that would simplify orchestration and ultimately help Windstream make its services more flexible, says John Nishimoto, vice president of product management. The first result of that effort is Windstream's SDNow service which offers SDN-orchestrated wavelengths between data centers, serving large customers including the major cloud providers.

"Our approach is to, from the transport and SDN orchestrated waves side, drive efficiency through automation so we are abstracting the complexity that exists within the network," he explains in an interview. "We use data models to allow the network services to be orchestrated in a simplified way, through intent-based provisioning. What that means is that we disaggregate a lot of the functions into cloud-native microservices. And that ultimately delivers the most flexible and programmable network."

The company initially focused on its transport network and the point-to-point SDN orchestrated waves, which it has started rolling out and will continue to expand through 2018, Nishimoto says. The next phase will be applying it as well at the Ethernet layer.

"We have done that for 1,500 route combinations across the network for waves," he elaborates. "The two phases after this will be to expand that footprint to even more PoPs [points of presence] and data centers and then also bring it up a layer to the Ethernet stack."

Next page: multi-platform, multi-vendor provisioning

Multi-platform, multi-vendor provisioning

The carrier also has conducted proofs-of-concept and demonstrations of multi-vendor, multi-platform provisioning across the network and is now developing that capability from a production perspective. That eliminates the need to address each piece of network gear using the native commands of its vendor, which adds to complexity and length of provisioning services.

"Right now, our customers are already seeing the benefits from a provisioning perspective," he explains. On its high-capacity routes, Windstream is able to turn up wavelength services much faster -- for one customer, Windstream was able to get a point-to-point wavelength service up in less than 20 days.

"On top of that, we will build on-demand capability and that will be through a portal so the automated provisioning that we are using internally will be exposed externally to our customers, later this year," Nishimoto says.

Windstream is part of ONAP and plans to leverage open source technology as part of this process but right now the company is primarily working with its transport vendors, he says.

Windstream's John Nishimoto
Windstream's John Nishimoto

"We are leveraging network orchestration and SDN controllers to enable automated wavelengths and Ethernet provisioning across multiple domains, whether it is metro, core, or long-haul, and multiple vendors -- Ciena, Coriant, Infinera -- as well, so we are able to provide automated and orchestrated provisioning of services."

Specifically, the company announced it was using Ciena's Blue Planet orchestrator to do the multi-vendor piece. (See Windstream's SDN Push Starts at the Core.)

The services story
Windstream is also bulking up on the services side, building on its experience and expertise -- and that acquired with the Earthlink and Broadview purchases -- to deliver services it considers critical to the digital transition.

"When we look at SD-WAN and UCaaS and CaaS [communications as a service], they are easily among those critical classifications that are running in customer networks today," Frane says. "They are the enabler of the digital differentiation that a lot of our customers are looking for."

A lot of this action is taking place in the more distributed parts of the network, among multi-location enterprises and not in the core transport piece, where SDN-orchestrated waves are more common. What Windstream is trying to do -- and it has a fair amount of competition in this space -- is be the carrier that takes the complexity of connecting all those locations to each other and to the cloud, which is where most business applications are running or will be run.

SD-WAN is critical in this process because, among other things, it is an over-the-top service that can run on any broadband service, making it easier to reach out of footprint. UCaaS is important as well, Frane notes, because companies want the broadest range of tools for reaching their customers -- including email, chat bots, social media and more -- but they need it integrated and offered as a consumable service, not a lot of point solutions, he says. After acquiring Broadview, Windstream combined its OfficeSuite capability with its existing SD-WAN for a more well-rounded offering.

Learn how to tackle the challenge of wide-scale SD-WAN rollouts at the fifth-annual Big Communications Event in Austin, May 14-16. The event is free for communications service providers!

"Our sales process starts with a general understanding of what the customers' needs are. And in partnership with [management firm] BRP, we've kind of created a digital transformation journey mapping that we use as a framework to guide customers," Frane explains. "We really don't like to sit down with them and get into siloed approaches which is frankly how some of our customers got into the challenging situations they find themselves in today. So we do like to look at the whole ecosystem."

In many if not most cases, the customers are less interested in the technologies underpinning what Windstream is offering than in how the solutions it develops fit the business' needs.

"We do try and abstract the complexity, that is where the service provider comes in, we make the complex simple for customers to understand and consume," he says. "It is really helping them identify where they are at in this journey because a lot of our customers understand where they want to go from an application perspective and from their own customer experience and it is working with them to make sure they have the underlying infrastructure and technology to do get there."

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— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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