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AT&T Field Trials Multivendor White Box Switch

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SAN FRANCISCO -- 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 the company believes 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 AT&T 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 AT&T tested provided high performance telemetry into the ECOMP platform to monitor the traffic as it zipped from Washington DC to San Francisco. It’s early, but AT&T thinks 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. AT&T can send packets with the same software no matter what chip it is using.

Creating this white box switch was a group effort. Several visionary companies helped 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.

AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)

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