AT&T announced in early April that it had conducted live field trials of white box switches that carried customer traffic from Washington D.C. to San Francisco. The switches were assembled from components including open source software from SnapRoute, merchant silicon from Broadcom, and programmable silicon from Barefoot Networks.
The announcement was significant because it demonstrates the feasibility of the white box model. White box isn’t just about decoupling hardware and software, and it’s not just about cheaper gear. At its heart, white box is about a clean slate.
Rather than working around the cruft, bloat and bolt-ons that accrue in networking operating systems and feature sets, white box lets organizations take a fresh look at their requirements, and then customize systems to meet those requirements.
Modular, open-source software let customers pick and choose the networking protocols and features they need. The software can also be tied into management and operational tools so that networking gear can be managed at scale through automation.
Meanwhile, programmable silicon lets them customize data plane functions and, in combination with open frameworks like P4, instrument and measure packets in just about any way they want to produce detailed telemetry.
AT&T called out telemetry as a key benefit of its field trial, writing “… the boxes we tested provided high performance telemetry into our ECOMP platform to monitor the traffic.”
Barefoot Networks develops the programmable Tofino networking silicon used in the AT&T trial. Ed Doe, VP of Product and Strategy at Barefoot, said the company worked with AT&T and SnapRoute to feed in-band network telemetry (INT) from the Tofino chip, up through SnapRoute, and into AT&T’s ECOMP orchestration platform.
“AT&T wrote P4 code to adapt INT for MPLS to get the right hooks to get the telemetry data,” said Doe.
For AT&T, better telemetry isn’t just about improving operations. As the company noted in its blog post, it hopes that more detailed telemetry will enable new business opportunities, just as tying GPS coordinates to mobile devices spurred new applications and services.
Of course, when you sew together hardware and software to get just the right fit, you need a lot of tailors. It’s a significant undertaking that requires expertise in networking and open source software, and a team of developers that can thread disparate parts into a functional whole.
That’s why white box has seen most of its uptake in very large organizations that can invest in staff to stitch together the right pieces—and sew up the inevitable holes and tears.
A Clear Signal
It’s tempting to read too much into the future of the networking industry from AT&T’s blog. This was just one field trial by one carrier using two switches—which have since been removed from the production network.
However, it’s clear to me that by going public with this announcement, AT&T is signaling the incumbents that it is not beholden to them. AT&T is demonstrating that it has the capability to carve its own infrastructure future should it so choose.
For instance, while telemetry is one benefit the carrier can wring from white box, another is the flexibility that comes from decoupling hardware and software. As the company wrote in its blog:
…this software capability isn’t hard wired to a particular hardware platform. We can send packets with the same software no matter what chip we’re using.
For networking vendors that tout the benefits of an integrated hardware/software stack, that sentence should make them shiver.
That said, some incumbents recognize the wave of disruption bearing down on them, and are making efforts to—at worst—not get swamped, and at best, to ride on top.
Arista Networks recently announced a containerized version of its EOS network operating system that could run on third-party hardware from ODMs such as Quanta and Edgecore. Arista took this step at the behest of several cloud-scale customers who wanted to manage their ToR switches using the tools and processes they use to manage tens of thousands of servers.
Juniper Networks is drawing attention to the programmability of its Junos software and the steps the company is taking around data modeling and APIs for automation, as well as the telemetry data it can prodoce operations. (For a detailed overview, see Juniper’s presentations from Networking Field Day 14.)
As for Cisco, earlier this month an unsourced article in The Information claimed that Cisco was developing a plan, code named Lindt, to decouple its software from its ASICs.
While Cisco wouldn’t comment on Lindt, SDX Central reported a Cisco spokesperson as saying “…the vast majority of our customers see huge value from the power and efficiency of our fully integrated networking platforms. This tight integration of hardware and software will continue to be the basis of the networking solutions we offer our customers.”
I won’t presume to tell Cisco its business. The company owns the lion’s share of the global switch and routing market, which generated almost $40 billion in revenue 2016 according to IDC. And the truth is, a vast majority of customers, particularly in the enterprise, may not be ready (in terms of operations, processes, staff size and expertise, and training) for the clean slate approach of white box.
But over time (and likely sooner rather than later), the integration work required of white box will get easier, and pre-packaged options will have more appeal.