AT&T kicks off major white box router deployment

After years of testing the technology, AT&T said it is now moving forward with a major deployment of white box routers. Specifically, the carrier said it would install 60,000 white box routers in its cell towers “over the next several years.”

“White box represents a radical realignment of the traditional service provider model,” said Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer and president, AT&T Labs, in a release from the carrier. “We’re no longer constrained by the capabilities of proprietary silicon and feature roadmaps of traditional vendors. We’re writing open hardware specifications for these machines, and developing the open source software that powers these boxes. This means faster hardware upgrades, since anyone can build to these specs. And software upgrades that move at internet speed. We’re doing this all while keeping costs low so we can focus on expanding our nationwide mobile 5G footprint for our customers as quickly as possible.”

That could turn into quite the savings: AT&T’s distributed network includes more than 5,000 central offices and more than 60,000 towers.

AT&T’s white box push builds on top of many of the carrier’s recent software-focused initiatives, including the creation of its ONAP software architecture. Indeed, AT&T today also announced that it hopes to virtualize fully 65% of its core network functions by the end of this year, after hitting its goal of virtualizing 55% of its core network functions by the end of 2017.

AT&T’s push toward software and virtualization at its core is about replacing specialized, proprietary hardware that’s tied to a specific vendor’s software with off-the-shelf hardware running software from a variety of vendors. Such a move promises to allow AT&T to more quickly upgrade elements within its network while cutting costs. And that general move has been reflected in a variety of AT&T’s efforts and announcements in recent years, including developing its Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), which the carrier has described as an operating system for the network cloud, as well as its OpenROADM initiative.

But AT&T’s announcement today of its white box router deployment is particularly noteworthy as it moves the effort beyond AT&T’s core network and into the routers that sit at AT&T’s cellular base stationsthus weaving software and virtualization into the very fabric of AT&T’s wireless network as the carrier moves to upgrade to 5G network technology and transition to an edge computing paradigm.

AT&T said that its white box routers will run its “Disaggregated Network Operating System,” or dNOS. The carrier has been testing that operating system for around a year; the technology stems from AT&T’s acquisition of Vyatta. Like ONAP, AT&T has plans to release dNOS into the open source community via the Linux Foundation.

(AT&T’s moves into open source are partly an effort by the carrier to rally vendors around the software by encouraging other operators to use its open source offerings. And that strategy appears to be paying off, considering longtime AT&T rival Verizon recently announced it too would join a range of other operators using ONAP.)

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A router is just one network element that AT&T could turn into a white box. The company has also tested white box switches and customer premises equipment (CPE) for businesses. AT&T didn’t name its white box router vendors and partners in its announcement.

To be clear though, AT&T is not alone in its quest to deploy white box equipment into its network. For example, Verizon has also developed its own white box CPE concept. In May, Verizon named ADVA Optical Networking’s Ensemble Connector as part of its “universal CPE” (uCPE) solution. Verizon is using Adva’s Ensemble Connector as its network functions virtualization infrastructure on white box servers.