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AT&T looking at white boxes as CPE

Jim Duffy | June 17, 2015
AT&T is considering offering bare metal switches and servers to consumers as customer premises equipment for the carrier's services.

SANTA CLARA — AT&T is considering offering bare metal switches and servers to consumers as customer premises equipment for the carrier's services.

At the Open Network Summit conference here, Andre Fuetsch, AT&T senior vice president, Architecture & Design, said the economics of commodity bare metal switching, as well as the scale, performance and programmability, make it appealing for the carrier to sell into the customer premises.

Fuetsch said bare metal white box switching also makes sense at the carrier's cell sites and central offices.

"White box is not just for data centers," he said during his ONS keynote address which updated attendees on AT&T's massive software-defined networking and network functions virtualization project. Many operators like AT&T are deploying bare metal white box switches to make their service and operations networks more flexible and scalable.

"Cost is one of the biggest drivers but it's also flexibility, more control," Fuetsch said later during an interview with Network World. "Typically, customers would buy a particular vendor's hardware box and they would have to run their software. By having a more open, flexible box, that allows the customer to choose what particular VNF (virtualized network function) they run: one supplier's firewall, one supplier's load balancer, one supplier's virtualized router."

Fuetsch said white box switches on the customer premises could also run applications, like a virtualized IP PBX.

"So at the CPE, these boxes are extremely flexible, very scalable, they have great economics, and we believe customers are going to want them," Fuetsch said.

The switches will run a uniform operating system and protocol stack, ostensibly defined and/or developed by AT&T, that will also run in the AT&T cloud for scale and operational simplicity, Fuetsch said. Customers will then be able to change VNFs that run on top of it, whether the software stack is on premises or in the AT&T cloud.

"In order to sell a service with the right performance, reliability and to put our stamp of approval on it, we have to have some control over the stack that it's running on," Fuetsch said.

AT&T is also looking at extending SDN and NFV "down the stack" into Layer 1 functions such as optical transport and access. Reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexers are proprietary and rigid, he says, so software programmability would enhance configurability and provisioning.

In access, SDN and NFV can be used to offer virtualized optical line termination for fiber-to-the-home deployments based on Gigabit Passive Optical Networks. Indeed, AT&T is looking at ON.Lab's ONOS SDN controller, which AT&T helped define, for that specific function, Fuetsch says.

As for AT&T's own internal SDN transformation of its service network, Fuetsch says the carrier is 5% of the way along on its goal of 75% virtualization by 2020.


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