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AT&T trials open source “white box” switch

AT&T developer office

© AT&T

  • White box project used multi vendors and open source software
  • Project went from silicon fabrication to live trial in three months
  • Data telemetry processed by AT&T’s ECOMP platform
  • Telco now looking at testing white boxes for its cell tower routers

AT&T has just announced that at the end of last month its engineers successfully completed what it believes to be the first live field trials of multi-supplier, open source white box switches, carrying customer traffic. The telco used a common, uniform open network operating system across multiple merchant silicon chips to build a network switch that met its specific real-world data needs.

The trial used a route from Washington DC to San Francisco, and provided high performance telemetry for its ECOMP platform to monitor the traffic. The hardware is disaggregated from the software and so the so-called white boxes can comprise semiconductors from any vendor.

“We’re in the early stages of this process, but already we see huge potential for increasing the speed of innovation, lowering costs and, most importantly, staying ahead of the needs of our customers,” said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer, AT&T. “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. We think white box will be a big part of the future of the wide area network.”

The standardised hardware and open source software that powered these new network switches was provided by Intel, Broadcom, Edgecore Networks, Barefoot Networks, Delta Electronics and SnapRoute. Intel architecture-based processors ran the SnapRoute operating system that managed the Barefoot and Broadcom chips and the various interfaces on the boxes.

"The transformation of the network to an open, programmable platform of innovation is key to meeting the demands of the digital services economy," said Sandra Rivera, vice president and general manager of the Network Platforms Group at Intel. "Through our contributions to open source, open standards and the enablement of broad ecosystems, we will continue to work with leaders like AT&T to bring new solutions and services to the market more quickly and cost effectively."

These new switches are tightly integrated with the AT&T ECOMP platform, which was recently handed off to the Linux Foundation to be released into open source as the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP). It is also using its internally-developed TORC packet network control software on these switches. AT&T hopes that other telcos will continue to adopt ONAP as the standard orchestration platform for software-centric networks.

“Just as open computer operating systems, like Linux, leveraged community contributions to create newly architected, high-performance operating systems, now the networking ecosystem has reached a similar inflection point,” said Chris Rice, SVP network architecture and design, AT&T. “This allows us to build on a new networking paradigm, one that disaggregates the hardware and software to achieve greater simplicity, and deliver increased performance and speed of innovation.”

AT&T says it is also testing the replacement of proprietary routers on its 60,000 cell towers with white box routers. It believes it can dramatically increase the capacity on each tower while keeping costs under control. AT&T says data traffic on its wireless network has grown more than 250,000 per cent since 2007, and with autonomous vehicles, AI and 5G on the horizon, numbers will only trend higher. Hence the requirement for more efficient networking components.

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