Lumen: core fiber network with secure edge services
The name is new; the enterprise is not. Lumen’s origins go back to well before WWII as a local telecoms provider in Louisiana, still the location of its HQ. It was to grow into one of the USA's largest and most successful providers of telecommunications infrastructure and services, making a large number of acquisitions along the way. One huge competitive advantage it holds lies in its extensive fiber network. A name change to Lumen Technologies from CenturyLink in September 2020 reflected the way the company itself had already successfully integrated the technologies and capabilities it had accrued and developed as a telecoms leader with the ability to serve the needs of large corporations. Another new brand under the Lumen umbrella, Quantum Fiber, is a fully digital platform for delivering fiber-based products and services to residents and small businesses. Lumen continues to extend its existing 450,000-mile fiber network. This is the company's outstanding asset, with which few can compete.
Few know more about Lumen's subsequent journey from being a primarily rural telecoms provider to being a technology company with the ability to deliver network service and network capability at the pace of compute than Shawn Draper. Now VP of Enterprise Platform Engineering, he has evolved and carried this vision forward to drive much of Lumen's network automation and standardization strategy, which is the basis for Lumen’s transformation from telco to technology platform.
Network at the pace of compute
In its shift from telco to technology platform, Lumen changed its approach and determined the company would no longer continue to simply accrue capacity, managing discrete systems and running different products over the top, but neither would it seek the traditional solution of migrating the siloed systems inherited with multiple expansions and acquisitions to a common platform.
Instead, it embraced the concept of federated inventory that gives a holistic overview of all its assets and enables the company to view, consume, plan, manage and assure its network as a common asset irrespective of legacy systems and processes. As Shawn Draper explains: “We decided that our historical patterns couldn’t scale. As such, we sourced data from each of our systems creating a composite view that gave us a full topological look at our network, irrespective of systems and processes. We call this ‘colorless network’.” Full horizontal and vertical visibility of the entire network inventory became essential, he says. Whichever way you look at a network, whether as a physical system, or a geographical information system (GIS) or indeed from the end-users viewpoint because they depend on human interaction, they will have holes like Swiss cheese. But if these data sets are overlaid, its appearance will be close to solid, and automated decision making will be much more reliable – and of course much faster.
That's what gives Lumen the ability to tell a customer, within seconds, where they should be spending their dollars to optimize that investment. “When you have a data set giving you this level of visibility, you have the ability to drive the delivery of network at the pace of compute.” For customers, this means that provisioning and activation of network capabilities are taken out of the critical path. For logical changes, same or next day delivery is a reality. New service installation opportunities can be measured in days rather than the weeks to months that used to be the industry norm. Automating standardized configurations is at the heart of this transformation, enabled by leveraging partnerships with leading innovators such as the OTDR network automation specialists Itential, and EXFO, which provided a centralized test orchestration system and strategically deployed verifiers across the network.
The benefit to Lumen customers goes beyond the speed of access – it goes straight to EBITDA. Customers today experience a level of flexibility in the network offering, thanks to technology, never before available. They used to be limited by the network reach of the carriers; however, with the growth of carrier partnerships this has changed, says Draper: “Now we're able to move into a more dynamic service level that allows customers the flexibility to be able to utilize different network capabilities at different sites and pair it all together as an overall solution.” Lumen’s combination of its expansive fiber network, 180K+ lit buildings, and its Adaptive Network offerings of Dedicated Internet Access, traditional Virtual Private Networking and its SD-WAN based offerings, Lumen can provide a solution that meets the needs of its customer base.
How customers view Lumen's business is ultimately defined by how the business sees itself. The evolution of technology has been applied to everything Lumen does, from provisioning and activation through the ability to scan across the entire network topology, assess any layer 2 or 3 services that are impacted and tie it into the network visualization dashboard so customers can run their NOC (network operations center) from toolsets provided by Lumen, in the user interface (UI) or API formats. “We are no longer talking about a telco or network company: this is a true technology company.”
The 4th industrial revolution (4IR)
Our customer conversations are no longer limited by network products. “Today we are talking to our customers about application-level services that permit them to meet their business needs without having to worry about the things that are not within their core competency. We have the ability to deliver low latency-based solutions and are creating the platform for businesses that they can build upon to create brand spanking new industries that have never even existed before.”
It’s this level of flexibility that offers our customers the ability to leverage our API enabled network to extend the reach of the public cloud to the metro and premise edge. It’s at this point that a company’s applications lose their historical limitations and new applications begin to bud. This combination of compute and network will drive change across all industries and create or fuel new ones. For example, self-driving cars, industrial robotics or the medical and pharmaceutical industries where it has made possible the rapid development, manufacturing and distribution of vaccines during the current pandemic, not to mention the analysis of data relating to their efficacy in controlling infection. “The ability to provide five millisecond latency to applications allows high-speed transaction capability over the top of the secure network, thereby extending your platform capabilities and not requiring you to invest in data center capacity.”
4IR leverages the power of data to drive automated transactions. Software development should no longer be driven by requests from operations.
In the 4th Industrial Revolution, speed matters. Businesses that are nimble enough to act on data faster than their peers are well-positioned to become market leaders. They are able to spot new trends, identify potential process improvements, speed innovation and drive bottom-line growth.
The physical and virtual edge
Customers will be increasingly looking for edge-based solutions to give them better performance of existing capabilities that they would currently be running on private or public cloud and bringing them closer to their users' location. Five-millisecond latency is essential, enabling faster, deeper and more actionable business intelligence through a rethought concept of network architecture that extends cloud computing resources right out to the edge of the mobile network, using 5G and the edge ecosystem.
Long gone are the days when a communications service provider (CSP) aspired to own its clients' stack, Draper believes. “No single industry can span all these functions. The companies that are most successful know how to create a platform that encourages others to build on top. There are millions of companies out there bubbling with great ideas: developing a platform-based solution is a form of crowdsourcing when you think about it! When you're crowdsourcing the consumption of your edge base capability, you bring your core network along with it.” Low latency fiber is Lumen's core offering (it has one of the biggest interconnected optical fiber networks in the world), and by adding an edge-based capability, it delivers platform capability that few competitors can equal because either they don't have the network, or the hosting ability, or the public cloud edge, metro edge and deep edge capabilities that stem from Lumen's ability to deliver network at the pace of compute.
Changing the face of an industry
If any one thing differentiates Lumen from its competitors it is its combination of network strength, data center footprint and extensive managed services experience in operating and integrating hybrid environments. It's able to bridge clouds, IT infrastructure and the edge for low-latency, high-capacity, secure workloads and applications. Lumen's ability to deliver compute on customer premises with near-zero latency, or within its deep metro facilities designed for 5 milliseconds of latency or better, provides customers with the capability they need to acquire data, analyze patterns in near real-time and derive value from digital interactions.
For a technology-driven enterprise, software development should no longer be driven by requests from operations, Shawn Draper summarizes: “Technology teams are moving too fast for that, delivering capability in anticipation of operational requirements, and shifting from custom software development to development on a common platform. As 2025 approaches the network is increasingly dependent on network function virtualization (NFV): right now we have a hardware-enabled network, at our edge and at our core, but we are moving to high-density compute with virtual network infrastructure over the top.”