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AT&T White Box a Disruptive Force

Carol Wilson

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Open Networking Summit -- AT&T's venture into white box switches creates two different but equally disruptive trends for telecom's future. First, it's a clear signal to traditional telecom suppliers that the gig's up on closed system sales. As importantly, it signals major new service possibilities building on the per-packet visibility made possible by the open source P4 programming language used in the merchant silicon. (See AT&T Gives White Box Switches a Chance and AT&T Field Trials Multivendor White Box Switch.)

As explained by Andre Fuetsch, AT&T's CTO and president of AT&T Labs, in a keynote here and in a later interview, moving into the hardware realm wasn't that big a leap for AT&T, given its earlier involvement with devices for its FlexWare universal CPE and NetGate virtual private networks. The speed with which the company was able to pull together a white box switch it could operate in a field trial on its domestic network working with two relatively small and unfamiliar vendors -- Barefoot Networks and SnapRoute -- was impressive, even to Fuetsch.

"What is phenomenal for us and for me -- being in this business over 20 years -- I've never seen something come together so quickly as this project," Fuetsch tells Light Reading. "Working with the Barefoot team, we were able to take their new chip that just came out of the silicon fab and actually put that chip into working production in less than three months. You just don't see that with just a chip, there is a lot of supporting software. It was an amazing collaboration and hats off to all the companies we worked with to pull this together in record time."

The other key player, SnapRoute -- a company in which AT&T has invested -- created the network OS. "They took this very novel approach of building a hardware abstraction layer and running open source networking modules like BGP, OSPF that sit on top of this abstraction layer and can operate independent of what merchant silicon is underneath," he explains. In fact, AT&T actually built several different white boxes and involved another silicon vendor to be named later.

That this is a shot across the bow of AT&T's traditional vendors isn't something Fuetsch denies -- or even attempts to mitigate.

"Here's the big message for the OEMs -- it is really a call for them to open up their architectures, open up their software and their own hardware so they can participate," he says. "They are going to have to make a choice here -- do you want to be at the table or on the plate?"

Too often, Fuetsch explains, even in the software-defined networking era, getting the maximum performance from OEM gear still means buying an entire stack from one vendor, to include the operations and support systems.

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What AT&T did with its white box deployment was ensure that it was tied into the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP) to enable the per-packet telemetry to be leveraged to deliver what Fuetsch believes will be an explosion of new service possibilities, akin to what adding GPS to a smartphone enables today in ridesharing, mapping and directions, food delivery, etc.

And that's where this stuff gets exciting, he noted in the keynote address.

"This is more than just about lowering cost and achieving higher performance," Fuetsch told a packed house. "Frankly that's table stakes. This is really about removing barriers, removing layers, removing all that internal proprietary API stack that we've lived with these legacy IT systems, now we can bypass all of that and go straight to ONAP."

Utilizing the in-band network telemetry of P4 is "really remarkable -- this gives us, for the first time, unprecedented fine-grained visibility on a per-packet level," Fuetsch said. "If this were like a medical conference, I would be talking about how we're moving from x-rays to MRIs. that's how big a deal this is."

Instead of using common tools such as trace route or SNMP queries to determine packet performance -- both of which are inexact and not real-time -- AT&T can use the P4 language and the Barefoot solution in particular, "to actually learn about the network state all the way down to the packet level, and we can do that without impacting payload," Fuetsch says. "Once you have this visibility, you can enact control, and now you can really see maybe you want to treat certain traffic differently than other traffic."

That becomes especially important going forward with the rise of 5G and the Internet of Things supporting critical applications such as self-driving cars, remote surgery, virtual and augmented reality and much more.

"There are many new use cases enabled by getting this new level of visibility," he commented in the keynote. "This is our chance to get this right. Networking is going to change the world; it is more than just making SDN better this is about connecting lives and creating new opportunities."

And there will even be those opportunities for telecom OEMs, if they get on board, Fuetsch says.

Vendors "get what is going on here -- they all understand it is not a matter of if, it's a matter of when," he comments. "Things are going slowly on their side -- this is very disruptive to many of their business models."

But they can decide for themselves where -- and if -- they want to play, Fuetsch concludes.

— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading

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