Carrier sets goal of 65% virtualization this year

Replacing proprietary hardware with open source software is a key part of AT&T’s drive to take costs out of its network at the same time it increases capacity. The carrier has announced plans to replace the routers at 60,000 cell towers with white box hardware over the next several years.

“White box represents a radical realignment of the traditional service provider model,” said Andre Fuetsch, AT&T Labs CTO and president. “We’re no longer constrained by the capabilities of proprietary silicon and feature roadmaps of traditional vendors.”

Traditional vendors like Ericsson and Nokia may play a smaller role in emerging 5G networks than they have in LTE networks. AT&T did not name any vendors or suppliers for the white box router project, but the carrier did name several partners last year when it announced a related white box switch project. The company said Barefoot Networks, Broadcom, Delta Electronics, Edgecore Networks, Intel Corporation, and SnapRoute provided the standardized hardware and open source software for that trial.

The new routers are being deployed at cell tower locations in order to bring more flexible compute power to the network edge, where operators expect more and more data processing to occur. Self-driving cars, virtual reality and other low latency applications that require mobility will rely on servers placed close to the network endpoints rather than in a distant data center.

Open source software
AT&T said its white box routers will use its disaggregated network operating system, or dNOS. The carrier acquired some of this technology when it bought Brocade’s Vyatta unit last year. AT&T will make dNOS widely available to developers by releasing it to the Linux Foundation, just as it released its ECOMP (Enhanced Control, Orchestration, Management and Policy) software last year.

AT&T’s news dropped on the first day of the Open Networking Summit, and the carrier said it will provide additional news at the conference about its plans to move more network functions into software. Last year AT&T said it has virtualized 55% of its core network functions and today it said that it will virtualize 65% by the end of this year.

Orchestration of edge routers is one core function that the carrier plans to move to open source software in the near future. AT&T’s white box routers will be coordinated using the Open Network Automation Platform, or ONAP.

AT&T said its new software-driven architecture will extend to small cells as well as to towers, and will be a cornerstone of its commitment to be the first U.S. carrier to offer a mobile 5G network.

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