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AT&T Gives White Box Switches a Chance

Craig Matsumoto
4/4/2017
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In what could be considered a breakthrough for the white box switching movement, AT&T is planning to announce today that it's completed a trial of white box switches, powered by SnapRoute's FlexSwitch network operating system and by two types of switching chips, one from Broadcom and one from startup Barefoot Networks.

What's more, AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) worked quickly (especially for a carrier) to get this done. The trio of AT&T, Barefoot Networks , and SnapRoute worked together for only "six to eight weeks" to get these switches implemented, says Ed Doe, Barefoot's vice president of marketing.

The trial used two types of switches -- one from Delta Electronics, powered by a Broadcom switch chip, and another from Edgecore running Barefoot's Tofino chipset. AT&T executives John Donovan and Andre Fuetsch are expected to discuss more during an Open Networking Summit (ONS) keynote talk this morning.

White boxes -- generic hardware running an arbitrary choice of software -- have been associated more with hyperscale web players than with carriers, which makes AT&T's move significant. "One could argue it's disruptive to the ecosystem, because the telcos have historically relied on the big OEMs," Doe says.

The white box concept fits with the message of open source software and software-defined networking (SDN) that AT&T has publicly championed. It's creating a "very different AT&T," as Donovan noted at a San Francisco event in January. (See AT&T Takes 'Different Approach' With 5G, ECOMP, Big Data.)

Today's announcement is particularly exciting for Barefoot, because AT&T is the first customer it has disclosed. (SnapRoute also happens to be the first announced software partner for Barefoot. The companies will demo their combined products at ONS.)

Doe acknowledges that the idea of white box switches remains most closely associated with web-scale players such as Facebook and Google, but he says Barefoot has been talking to service providers as well as to systems OEMs, too.

"Now that it's an ecosystem, it's spreading to more folks like the telcos," he says.

Traditionally, routers and switches bundle a vendor's software together with proprietary hardware. That's how Cisco, Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent have done it for years. The white box switch aims to run similar software on more generic hardware -- the model that servers use. (See Think Outside the White Box and CEO Chat With John Chambers, Cisco.)

In recent years, OEMs have warmed up to certain aspects of the white box model. For example, Cisco and Juniper, which insisted for years that they were better off developing their own chips, have begun using ASICs from outside vendors such as Broadcom.

Cisco might even be ready to embrace the full white box concept. A recent rumor said the company is considering selling its software standalone, which means customers would be able to install it on hardware of their choice. (See Cisco Takes Bold Software Step to Counter White Box Threat – Report.)

External pressure might have something to do with it. Arista announced last month that it's planning to offer its EOS software in standalone form, to be installed on white box switches.

On the hardware side, the white box market is dominated by Broadcom, whose ASICs are at the heart of nearly every Taiwanese manufacturer's switches. Competing switch chips are starting to emerge, however, and they come with the added wrinkle of programmability.

In addition to Barefoot, a startup named Innovium recently launched its Teralynx chip family. And XPliant, acquired by Cavium Inc. (Nasdaq: CAVM), began shipping chips in 2014.

— Craig Matsumoto, Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading

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