The rise of SDN and network automation has created opportunities for growth and evolution among those who build and deploy networks behind the scenes. In 2017, LightRiver made an inorganic move with the acquisition of UCS and its netFLEX® platform, and has since been working hard to meld those SDN capabilities into its business. With us today to talk about its growing software business is Travis Ewert. Travis took over as COO of LightRiver’s software division last year after a long career with a variety of service providers, including Level 3.
TR: After 20+ years with Service Providers, and ten years+ of Network Automation Executive oversight – what are the biggest differences and opportunities that you see on the supplier side with LightRiver?
TE: At LightRiver I find a much broader lens and focus than just the Tier 1 wireline operators my own experience comes from. There are now also the Tier 1 wireless, 2-of-3 biggest interconnection providers, 15-of-20 top utility providers, multiple hyperscale companies, and additional strong Tier 1 global operators on the horizon. From an opportunity experience, in addition to a great dev-team that represents a bunch of bell labs folks and strong supporting cast, we have the equivalent of hundreds of years of operator experience in engineering and operations disciplines. We have a unique way of interfacing with customers, as we have been in their shoes. We can work with them in a much more intimate way to transform their operations and end-customer experiences by leveraging our network automation capabilities.
TR: What does LightRiver's software business look like today? How does LightRiver approach network automation?
TE: Our primary focus is that of network automation through our netFLEX® platform, which is short for network FLEXIBILITY and is a multi-domain optical domain controller that fits within an SDN-reference model. Our key themes for netFLEX® are simplify, standardize, and personalize. First and foremost, we're all about network automation and control of both legacy networks and next generation optical transport networks. We can service the old, the current, and even the new, and whether you're using our UI or coming in via API or more advanced integrations, we make it all look the same. That’s what we mean by simplified and standardized, and based on my 20+ years with service providers, that's compelling just by itself. But the unique thing is we've done it in more of a componentized, network-as-a-service approach. This allows our customers to personalize by leveraging our advanced data analytics and API services frameworks.
TR: Where does the software you provide fit within a customer’s overall back office and other systems?
TE: We refer to ourselves as a ‘bridge.’ netFLEX sits between northbound systems (OSS, Orchestration, and Operator UI or single-pane-of-glass), and that of the southbound network elements. Not just the hundreds of elements already supported across legacy, current, and disagg-next – but all of their respective history of software releases, hardware revisions, and broader. It’s one thing to say you've got a few hundred devices certified; it's another thing to say you’ve got this supplier’s box certified for the last 10 years of software releases. Most of what netFLEX® does is really under the hood in these operator environments. As just one example, we’ve got a customer with a single-pane-of-glass application on the assurance side of things where LightRiver’s netFLEX automates real-time service path, aggregation of all alerts and performance data off the network, test automation, and much more. There are hundreds, if not thousands of technicians who don't even know we exist because we're doing all that heavy lifting in the background.
TR: What future capabilities are you working on?
TE: It’s about an expansion of what we're doing versus filling big gaps, you know what I mean? What's very strategic for LightRiver is to look at what’s next within the optical ecosystem and continue the dev work we do to certify new platforms and keep in step with those folks. But the other area that's interesting right now is the whole network disaggregation play. Without naming names there's a few of those folks who, to keep costs down on their side, will probably put the basics into their platform, but they're not going to develop an overlaying network management strategy. So, we have an opportunity to get closer to them because netFLEX can be that comprehensive platform that can sit on top of the whitebox/disagg elements and give them the same look and feel as an existing operator's off-the-shelf platform. Then there’s the continued evolution on the data analytics side of things. We’ve already got machine learning and other advanced algorithms that we're leveraging for assurance automation, and we'll continue to invest in this area. Most operators historically are in an environment where they're data rich but action poor. One of our strategic investment areas is how to make that data actionable in a way that's really human hands off, where we see something and take action on their behalf and the human gets involved only if it requires a physical touch.
TR: Does LightRiver generally spend its time developing applications from scratch or on the integration and customization glue that holds things together?
TE: It’s really both. As an example, we have our own analytics engine that we’ve developed entirely ourselves. There are two or three prospective partners we're talking to who could then take that data and do some broader visualizations or even analytics on top that we could then extend to our customers. So, there will be more investment and building out of these integrations to support some of the most strategic SDN and OSS platforms out there. We will double- or triple-down this integration development supporting analytics, as well as that of realtime inventory and provisioning automation.
TR: What’s the biggest challenge ahead for LightRiver, its customers, and the industry as a whole when it comes to network automation?
TE: For LightRiver, the most pressing thing is to scale out so we can support all the new opportunity we're seeing. That's actually a really great place to be, as we are seeing enough positive activity in the market and lots of new customer opportunity that is obviously predicating that growth. The biggest challenge for our customers, is that of human change management: managing legacy past, current, and strategic go-forward all at the same time. This is exactly why LightRiver and the netFLEX® platform focus on a “simplify, standardize, and personalize” approach to make it all look the same and help our customers make these network and operational transitions. Automation can not only reduce the human change, but it can normalize a service provider's operational environment or system ecosystem. As an industry, the silver bullet of unified APIs and standard interfaces from disparate network elements and technologies facing northbound Orchestration and Control is still not there.
TR: How are you approaching the expansion of LightRiver’s software business? From what pools of talent do you draw?
TE: Right now, we are scaling out the peripheral, meaning more upfront sales engineering and customer requirements folks, as well as back-end customer onboarding and day 2 operational support. But of course, we are always going to be growing the development team. It’s a scale-out of the surround, and core dev, that we're putting focus on. What's interesting right now is a number of the bigger Tier-1 operators are letting go of staff. That means there is talent out there that has lived in these and understands these environments. This has resulted in a good opportunity to hire some talent that truly understands network automation and customer experience. We will also continue to focus on our co-op and Young Guns programs to bring in talent right out of school or even still in school. Network automation is still a tough space to hire into because we're looking for folks who have software development chops as well as an understanding of networking, but also an understanding of that end-customer experience. To find that trifecta is not easy, but we've done a good job over the last year or two of finding that talent.
TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!