A telco as cloud powerhouse? CenturyLink might pull it off

Telcos have tried and failed to become enterprise cloud juggernauts, but CenturyLink's 'developers first' approach -- and plunge in to Docker -- may give it a shot

A few years ago I asked Paul Maritz, who was CEO of VMware at the time, about the company's plans to partner with telcos looking to become major public cloud services for the enterprise. I noted that such attempts did not have a great track record. Maritz joked in response: "It's kind of like a third marriage; a triumph of hope over experience."

Over the past few months I've been tracking the cloud ambitions of CenturyLink, the third largest U.S.-based telco. Thanks to a smart team, CenturyLink could break the curse -- by targeting developers rather than simply offering compute and storage in the cloud. After all, by default developers often choose which cloud to use: Dev and test remains the top enterprise use for both private and public clouds, while PaaS (platform as a service) and MBaaS (mobile backend as a service) clouds compete hard to lock in Web and mobile developers.

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One important player in CenturyLink's developer initiative is Lucas Carlson, founder of AppFog, a public cloud PaaS based on CloudFoundry that was acquired by the telco in June 2013. CenturyLink's cloud aspirations go back further, though, to at least 2011 when it plunked down $3.2 billion for Savvis, an independent provider of managed hosting, collocation, and cloud services. In November 2013, CenturyLink kicked it up another notch and snagged Tier 3, an IaaS and PaaS provider with an open source fork of CloudFoundry that supports Microsoft .Net. Add it all up, Carlson tells me, and CenturyLink stands as one of the largest VMware hosts.

Carlson holds the title of chief innovation officer at CenturyLink and works with vice president of cloud strategy Jonathan King, who led the charge to acquire AppFog and was formerly a senior exec at IaaS provider Joyent, originator of Node.js. When I asked Carlson why he thought CenturyLink would succeed as a cloud provider where others had failed, he replied: "I don't know if it will succeed, but I'm certainly hoping. Their attitude is a lot different, so at the very least I can tell you that we're not 'doing the Einstein' -- trying the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

Instead, Carlson says, CenturyLink is approaching the cloud with a "West Coast" startup perspective. Rather than simply gobbling up companies like Savvis, Tier 3, and AppFog and "squeezing the technology out of them until they pop," the telco is providing the resources necessary for key people from these acquisitions to develop new cloud solutions. Both Carlson and King (the latter in an earlier conversation) note that CenturyLink does not offer wireless -- generally considered the big growth area for telcos -- which helps free the company to go "all in" with cloud as the big value-add.

All this is easy to say, but where are the technology proof points? One authentic milestone is Panamax, the first open source project to emerge from CenturyLink Innovations Lab, the company's research and development arm. The project aims to make it absurdly easy to build and share multicontainer applications based on Docker -- the new lightweight, Linux-based application portability solution that's taking the industry by storm. (Frankly, I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea that a telco would jump on an early-stage technology like Docker, let alone contribute a complementary open source solution.)

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