White boxes shifting the balance of telecommunications power

US telco AT&T identified the white box as the future of network design last year and has since committed to installing over 60,000 of them in its 5G mobile network towers and small cells over the next few years.

The company has also conducted trials of 10Gbit/s XGS-PON equipment intended to virtualize broadband access for consumer services, submitting open sourced white box designs to the Open Compute Project for approval.

When AT&T talks about a white box it generally means a basic hardware design built on commercial, off the shelf hardware and merchant silicon (typically a router or switch chip) wedged into a stackable pizza box case. It supports multiple operating systems and uses application programming interfaces (APIs) that link to other management and service platforms.

AT&T devices will run the telco’s own open source disaggregated network operating system (dNOS) built using Vyatta virtual router technology acquired from Brocade last July, topped by an open network automation platform (ONAP) orchestrator to handle automated cloud application and service provisioning.

This isn’t just an exploratory whim for AT&T, it is a focused drive to force hardware and software makers to rethink network architecture and design and move beyond traditional proprietary routers towards new, lower cost hardware alternatives that can be quickly updated using virtualized, open source software. By releasing its dNOS framework as open source (since taken up by the Linux Foundation), the telco also hopes to drive broader adoption by making it easier for more generic hardware makers to build standard reference designs.

Predictions that white boxes could see off traditional router hardware vendors may be wide of the mark, or at least premature, but some suppliers harbour genuine fears they will end up as little more than the engineering arms of service providers. Either way, if white box adoption does spread beyond the likes of AT&T and Verizon to the broader service provider community on a global scale (and that is a big if) – the balance of power so long weighted in the network equipment makers’ favour will undergo a truly seismic shift.

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