AT&T engineers flip switch on multisupplier open source white box

AT&T is also exploring white box options for replacing proprietary routers on cell towers.

AT&T says it has completed tests that ultimately could lead to the network of the future: the type of 5G network that supports self-driving cars and real-time monitoring of cars on roads.

Specifically, on March 28, AT&T engineers completed what they believe to be a first in the telecom industry: live field trials of a multisupplier open source white box switch carrying customer traffic. “What this means is we used a common, uniform open network operating system across multiple merchant silicon chips to build a piece of network equipment that met our stringent real-world data needs,” the operator explained in a press release. 

“The boxes we tested provided high performance telemetry into our ECOMP platform to monitor the traffic as it zipped from Washington DC to San Francisco,” AT&T said. “It’s early, but we think this technology could accelerate innovation on almost any device that requires connectivity. It’s like how bringing reliable GPS tracking and navigation to smartphones enabled entirely new applications, and even industries.”

The announcement was made as the industry convenes this week in Santa Clara, California, for the Open Networking Summit, a Linux Foundation event billed as the largest Open Networking and Orchestration event in the world.

Interestingly, AT&T also revealed that it’s exploring white box options for other network gear, including as replacements for the proprietary routers on cell towers, with the potential to dramatically increase the capacity on each tower while keeping costs in line. 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.

“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,” commented Chris Rice, senior vice president of network architecture and design at 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.”

To be sure, AT&T made it clear that creating the white box switch was a group effort. Barefoot Networks, Broadcom, Delta Electronics, Edgecore Networks, Intel and SnapRoute provided the standardized hardware and open source software that powered the network switches. 

Delta’s Agema AGC7648A switch used Broadcom Qumran silicon chips and the SnapRoute network operating system in one location. A second location used Edgecore’s Wedge 100BF systems built using Barefoot’s 6.5 Tb/s Tofino silicon whose forwarding plane is specified using the P4 open source programming language to perform standard switching and routing and In-band Network Telemetry 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.

“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 of AT&T, said in the press release. “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.”

AT&T reports that data traffic on its wireless network has grown more than 250,000% since 2007. Self-driving cars, augmented reality and virtual reality and more will push those numbers higher as new access technologies like 5G come online.

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