AT&T’s “White Box Switch” May Replace Proprietary Routers on Towers

In the not-too-distant future, when you hail a self-driving car, that car will likely be connected to a network. And that network connection will have to be more than fast. It will have to provide reliable and real-time monitoring of the data flowing from your car to the network and all the other cars around you on the road. If your car receives a command to turn, or stop, or accelerate, it has to be clear that command was sent and received. The level of fine grain data packet telemetry required for that use case will only become more critical as other, similar real-time applications emerge.

A new white box switch AT&T just trial tested can help make this a reality.

AT&T is exploring white box options for other network gear, as well. One area they’re testing is replacing the proprietary routers on our cell towers with white box routers. We think we can dramatically increase the capacity on each tower while keeping costs in line. With AT&T’s network of more than 5,000 central offices and more than 60,000 towers, the “switch” would have a considerable impact. 

On March 28, AT&T engineers successfully completed what they call “a first in the telecom industry”: live field trials of a multi-supplier open source white box switch carrying customer traffic. What this means is they 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.

What’s more, the boxes they tested provided high performance telemetry into AT&T’s ECOMP platform to monitor the traffic as it zipped from Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. Although it’s early in the testing stage, AT&T thinks this technology could accelerate innovation on almost any device that requires connectivity.

“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.”

AT&T cites the need for a more efficient switch as data traffic on their wireless network has grown more than 250,000 percent since 2007. Self-driving cars, augmented reality and virtual reality, and more will only push those numbers higher as new access technologies like 5G come online.

“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, senior vice president, 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.”

April 14, 2017      

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