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Why AT&T's Latest Open Source Contribution Matters

Ray Le Maistre
9/30/2019

AT&T has made a lot of contributions to the open networking community during the past few years, but last week's donation has "milestone" written all over it.

The operator announced Friday it had submitted its specifications for a distributed disaggregated chassis (DDC), based on Broadcom's Jericho2 processors, to the Open Compute Project (OCP), the open source body launched by Facebook, Intel and Rackspace in 2011 and which started focusing on how to reduce the cost of networking hardware in 2013.

In its press release about the DDC specifications, the operator makes it very clear how important this is to its network strategy:

    AT&T plans to apply the Jericho2 DDC design to the provider edge (PE) and core routers that comprise our global IP Common Backbone (CBB) -- our core network that carries all of our IP traffic. Additionally, the Jericho2 chips have been optimized for 400 gigabits per second interfaces -- a key capability as AT&T updates its network to support 400G in the 5G era.

    "The release of our DDC specifications to the OCP takes our white box strategy to the next level," said Chris Rice, SVP of Network Infrastructure and Cloud at AT&T. "We're entering an era where 100G simply can't handle all of the new demands on our network. Designing a class of routers that can operate at 400G is critical to supporting the massive bandwidth demands that will come with 5G and fiber-based broadband services. We're confident these specifications will set an industry standard for DDC white box architecture that other service providers will adopt and embrace."

In what was clearly a coordinated move (and as part of its ongoing efforts to muscle its way into the carrier routing club dominated by the likes of Cisco, Nokia and Juniper), disruptive router startup DriveNets hitched its R&D efforts to the DDC model.

The vendor announced late last week that its Network Cloud routing software stack is "the first solution on the market that supports the distributed disaggregated chassis model" submitted to the OCP.

DriveNets has been banging on for months about how its stack can support 400G-per-port routing and be scaled up to a whopping 768 Tbit/s.


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Why this matters
AT&T has always been a bellwether in the telecoms sector, internationally as well as in the US, but it has become even more influential in recent years as the operator community shifts away from legacy, monolithic network architectures by adopting white box hardware, software-defined systems and virtualized or even cloud-native functions. That influence is perhaps easiest to spot through its role in the development and adoption of the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP), which is based in part on an internal AT&T development, still relies heavily on AT&T effort and resources and which is fast becoming a de facto industry software platform for the management of emerging communications networks and services.

But AT&T doesn't only want to influence the direction of the telecom sector's software; it wants to direct the industry towards hardware consensus too, and that's where the submission of DDC specifications comes into play. AT&T is basically saying, we've found a way to build out a wide area data network in a more flexible way that is more suitable for multivendor application deployment than anything we have now and better suited to the demands of a 5G, video-centric and cloud-oriented world, and it's very likely that other operators will want to know more about how AT&T is doing this and take advantage of the resulting OCP developments.

But AT&T can't do this alone: As well as the support of other operators, which will help facilitate the economies of scale needed to make such proposals viable, it needs the vendor community to develop easily deployable products that can run on top of DDC (and other emerging network models, such as O-RAN in the cellular market) and which, very importantly, don't result in lengthy systems integration projects that cost a fortune. Incumbent vendors are good at vocal support for such software-oriented developments, but they don't want to help accelerate the move towards a white box-based network models that kill their current margins.

This is where the likes of DriveNets -- and others, such as fellow routing disruptor Volta Networks -- play a key role. DriveNets has been working closely with AT&T for a while and is believed to be deployed in at least part of its network already. Its Network Cloud system is designed to run on white boxes based on Jericho2 chips, hence its ability to sprint straight out of the traps last week to announce that its stack is aligned with the DDC model.

This should make DriveNets, which has significant funding behind its efforts, more attractive to other operators that want to follow AT&T's example and light a fire under the CTO teams at the incumbent router vendors, who don't want to see their business eroded by upstart suppliers.

The result should be an acceleration of activity around the development of viable, disaggregated network architectures among operators and vendors alike and that can only be good for the development of the networking industry as a whole.

For more on this topic, see:

— Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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