Making the Switch: Disruptive Telecom White Box Collaboration Accelerates and Opens the Platform, Powering Unprecedented Network Performance and Insights
AT&T-led Team Goes from Silicon Lab to Live Trial in 3 Months
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 trialed can help make this a reality.
On March 28, AT&T engineers successfully completed what we believe to be 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 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.
What’s more, 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. 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 smart phones enabled entirely new applications, and even industries.
What’s more, this software capability isn’t hard wired to a particular hardware platform. We can send packets with the same software no matter what chip we’re using.
Creating this white box switch was a group effort. Several visionary companies helped us bring it to life. Barefoot Networks, Broadcom, Delta Electronics, Edgecore Networks, Intel Corporation, and SnapRoute provided the standardized hardware and open source software that powered these new 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 (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.
“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.”
There is clearly a need for a more efficient switch. Data traffic on our wireless network has grown more than 250,000% 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.
"A high-performance and fully programmable forwarding plane puts the network owner in the driver’s seat,” said Craig Barratt, CEO of Barefoot Networks. “We are excited to see AT&T unlock deep and far-reaching visibility into their production network by using their P4 programs with Tofino and In-band Network Telemetry.”
“Broadcom is excited by the accelerated adoption of Jericho and Qumran products into various segments of AT&T's network," said Oozie Parizer, senior director, Switch Products Group at Broadcom. "The key to accelerating network innovation is to consistently deliver carrier-grade, high performance, cost and power-effective merchant silicon based solutions.”
“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. “Intel’s leadership in server, virtualization and cloud technologies is accelerating network virtualization today. 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.”
"SnapRoute is delighted to collaborate with AT&T on this large scale field trial” said Jason Forrester, CEO and Founder at SnapRoute. “New applications such as streaming video, self-driving cars, and telemedicine are driving network demand like never before. This creates an opportunity for our modular and extensible FlexSwitch software, together with merchant silicon, to give operators much more control of their networks.”
These new switches are tightly integrated with the AT&T ECOMP platform. We recently handed off ECOMP to the Linux Foundation to release into open source as the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP). The industry is quickly adopting ONAP as the standard orchestration platform for software-centric networks. We’re also using our internally-developed TORC packet network control software on these switches.
We’re exploring white box options for other network gear, as well. One area we’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 highly-distributed network of more than 5,000 central offices and more than 60,000 towers, that’s a big deal.
“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.”
*AT&T products and services are provided or offered by subsidiaries and affiliates of AT&T Inc. under the AT&T brand and not by AT&T Inc.
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