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Education, not box-shifting, says CenturyLink CTO

Martin Banks Profile picture for user mbanks December 1, 2014
CenturyLink’s new CTO, Jared Wray, sees educating both end users and the channel partners that supply their needs as a core part of building out a cloud-delivered platform of services, as putting datacentres together becomes a five-SKU jigsaw.

CenturyLink - Jared Wray
In the eyes of Jared Wray, who became CTO of datacenter and cloud services provider, CenturyLink, when it recently acquired the Tier 3 cloud services business he founded, education is now one of the key problems facing the development of technology-based services. And that is not education about the technology itself, but how to use it and how to sell it.

This is why he is ensuring that a core part of the company’s developing channel partner program has, for many of its participants, a strong education component. He explains:

We used to have a channel policy where the partners were allowed to work with our sales team, but that didn’t go far enough. Now we are after partners that want to live on our platform with us. We have built a new Ecosystem Program that channels SI partners, white label resellers looking to brand their own cloud, and add-ons. Add-ons are third-party vendors already offering web-services to developers and other companies and wanting to integrate to our platform so they can sell through it.

The last group we target is the software vendors. This has three levels: the first is free access to the resources so that they can sell to CenturyLink customers, the second provides more management services as well as education support such as sales training, and the top level is where we really invest with that partner in building dedicated managed services. A great example of that is (the recently announced service offering) Cloudera.

He expects there to be over 50 add-on service providers in the partner program by the end of the year.

The interesting aspect of this partner program is the fact that CenturyLink is ready and able to commit resources to sales training of channel partners, as one of the common problems expressed by large service providers is that their channel partners rarely seem to understand what it is they are actually selling, especially when it comes to the cloud. The other side of that coin is that channel partners – and some large service providers - usually seem to feel that all they need to sell is more `racks’ or cloud resources.

It is a massive problem, it is one of our biggest. For us a lot of our customers are mid-market enterprises, and you can’t just say to them `buy some cloud, how many do you want?’ You have to figure out a solution per workload. So we have to train our own salesforce for this so they understand not only our product, but are able to create solutions for the customers. And a lot of the time we have partners involved in that process.

Global ambitions

CenturyLink currently has 57 datacenters worldwide, all by acquisition. The company started as a small telco in Louisiana, USA, and over 10 years has grown to an $18bn service provider. Along the way it has acquired Embark, Sprint, Quest Communications, Savvis, and Tier 3.

The addition of Tier 3 started a move beyond resource provision and into building a platform adding packaged services that customers can sign up for and exploit rather than having to develop their own or configure/optimise existing point solutions into a workable whole:

This is a big change for CenturyLink. Not only have they been on this growth transformation but are also changing the way they are looking at their services, and one of my jobs is to build this platform. And how we think of it is take any service we have and build them onto a platform.

But to have a platform you need three common things: it has to be fully automated, it has to be programmable so it is easy to integrate with external sources, and it must be self-service.”
The next stage in the plan is the addition of more complex, user-facing services such as consultancy. The company’s goal is to be able to offer customers a full range of IT management services, so that they can then focus on their value to their markets.

It is here that the company is now expanding its horizons. According to Wray it already has a wide range of infrastructure delivery and management

Road sign to  education and future
options for customers to exploit, but the new target is to build out its applications offerings as part of a managed services portfolio. The target here is providing the `how to manage……’ component, building out on the network management services it already has available.

This now includes the management of SQL Servers, Oracle databases, and MySQL environments. It has also just added a managed Cloudera Hadoop environment:

The important part here is that we are building specialisation teams to understand these applications for our customers, so that they don’t have to have that skill in house.

The company also has plans established to increase this portfolio over the next couple of quarters. This includes more managed services such as refreshes of managed backup, making it available on the cloud, datacenter extensions, enabling more hosting capabilities, all with the aim of making it a single platform, with more integration between the different services in the portfolio.

Bad model

Moves such as this are starting to gain traction within the service provider community as they come to realise that just delivering compute resources is an increasingly bad business model because the only thing to compete with is price, and every competition on price tends towards zero. Wray ponders:

I have never heard of that concept expressed that way before, but yes. Telecommunications companies are great example of that in action. There is Amazon and Google and even CenturyLink where we compete on price. And we deliberately build it that way so we are competitive in the market.

But we also have value added services and a portfolio of services. A lot of our customers are looking for a network to run on and a place to host their infrastructure – a recent survey suggested 86 percent of workloads still haven’t moved to the cloud. But they also want a hybrid approach, which is why we offer services, and they want to augment how they manage services, which is why we offer that.

The global spread of datacenters also offers some advantages for users, particularly as the company starts to offer more complex, data- and compute-intensive applications such as Cloudera, where issues surrounding latency due to data transfer rates can become an impediment:

Yes, that is true. And data location and data sovereignty are becoming big subjects, especially in the EU. We have deployed in Frankfurt and we also have a cloud location there. We have a couple in the UK and we are also expanding during 2015, with more locations in Europe.

This does, of course, mean being able to offer consistency across the datacentres and all of them are now built to the same standards in terms of the build out and the management tools used within them. Twelve of its 57 datacenters are specifically dedicated to providing cloud services, and each one is very standardised, each using the same racks and infrastructures. In fact, these datacenters are built using just five SKUs to provide all of the capacity required to enable 30 plus cloud deliverable services:

When we need to expand the services we simply order the relevant rack, which is then just unwrapped and auto-installed. That’s how you get scale. We see our future being a mixed environment, with retail datacenter floor space and services, and our cloud service being in containers or whatever the latest technology is.

My take

The underlying trend here is that the technology of cloud has now become secondary, definable by a few SKU numbers. What is now important is `decerebralising’ its use in business and service provision – put simply, make it a `no-brainer’ for the customer.

That means someone, or some business, has to take some responsibility for hand-holding and educating not only the end customers, but also the channel that services their needs. To that end, Wray and CenturyLink have to be ranked amongst the `early understanders’ of the problem and its probable solution.

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