AT&T’s white box trial signals desire for disaggregated platforms, service agility

AT&T’s recent multisource white box switch trial shows that service providers have a desire to lower costs while gaining greater flexibility to deploy new services.

The service provider recently conducted live field trials of a multisupplier open source white box switch carrying customer traffic. During the trial, AT&T operated a common, uniform open network operating system across multiple merchant silicon chips to build a piece of network equipment that it said met its stringent real-world data needs.

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Tom Nolle, president and founder of consulting firm CIMI Corp., told FierceTelecom that AT&T’s trial is a reflection that hardware elements like switches are just a way to transport traffic.

“I think that with cloud computing and virtualized services, we’re getting to the point where switches are less an element of a service like Carrier Ethernet and more just a transport element in and related to data centers,” Nolle said. “AT&T has been moving aggressively to substitute commodity devices for proprietary boxes in any case, and the new switching mission facilitates that.”

Nolle added that the ultimate goal for AT&T and other carriers adopting white box approaches is being more cost-efficient.

“It’s really mostly about lowering cost per bit, because revenue per bit continues to fall sharply,” Nolle said.

AT&T said the boxes it tested provided telemetry into its ECOMP platform to monitor the traffic as it traveled from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco.

The new switches are tightly integrated with the AT&T ECOMP platform. AT&T recently handed off ECOMP to the Linux Foundation to release into open source as the Open Network Automation Platform. It is also using its own internally developed TORC packet network control software on these switches.

Participating in the white box trial were a number of silicon vendors, including Barefoot Networks, Broadcom, Delta Electronics, Edgecore Networks and Intel. Meanwhile, SnapRoute provided the standardized hardware and open source software powering this new network switch. Delta's Agema AGC7648A switch used Broadcom Qumran silicon chips and the SnapRoute network operating system in one location.

At a second location, AT&T used Edgecore's Wedge 100BF systems built using Barefoot's 6.5 Tbps Tofino silicon. Edgecore’s platform’s forwarding plane is specified using the P4 open source programming language to perform standard switching and routing and In-band Network Telemetry (INT) functionality. SnapRoute's open network operating system FlexSwitch was used as the control plane and unifying OS.

Intel architecture-based processors ran the SnapRoute operating system that managed the Barefoot and Broadcom chips and the various interfaces on the boxes. The service provider claims the technology “could accelerate innovation on almost any device that requires connectivity.”

"With this trial, we went from using traditional switches the size of multiple refrigerators to a chip that can literally fit in the palm of your hand,” said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and CTO of AT&T, in a release. “We think white box will be a big part of the future of the wide area network."