BT tunes white box strategy for disaggregation while developing cloud-native deployments

BT is implementing its white box strategy for switches and routers while also rolling out cloud-native applications. (Pixabay)

BT is banking on white boxes to fuel disaggregation on its network while working toward cloud-native and container deployments down the road.

BT's Neil McRae, chief architect, said his company was looking at white box switches for programmable disaggregation in mobile and broadband applications.

"For example, we're trying to disaggregate things like cell site gateways and things that are relatively straightforward in terms of feature functionality," McRae said.  "We're looking at things where we can get big wins and that's going incredibly well for us. We're not really in production, but we're not that far away from it."

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Operators are looking to disaggregation on white boxes to add flexibly and scalability to routers and switches while also lowering capex and opex. AT&T announced earlier this year that it would install 60,000 white box routers in its cell towers over the next several years while Verizon is working on white box deployments on its edge routers.

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McRae said BT was working tightening up the integration of its hardware and software.

"It's very much 'Can I take our software or someone else's software and run it on my own hardware?'" McRae said. "But largely you can buy virtualized router from Juniper. You can buy the virtualized router from Nokia. You can buy a virtualized router from just about anybody.

"What we're doing with white boxes is we're bringing a much closer integration of that software and hardware, and writing some of the functions ourselves. You can also buy that software from a third party like IP InFusion who have done fantastic work in moving white box routing forward; or acquire it through open source. We’ve done some great work with Dell on this also that we talked about last year."

McRae said BT doesn't want to buy software from third-parties that has bloatware or unnecessary elements that don't fit the telco's requirements. BT has written some of its own code to run on disaggregated switches.

"That's hard, but its doable," McRae said. "It's probably not the path we would take mainstream, but it allows us to work on some things that we want. We may partner up with a third party or leverage some open source to be able to create the things that we need in the shape that we want them to have.

"If I think about the ever increasing set of security challenges, by only having the software we need we reduce potential impacts of bugs in features we don’t use."

McRae said that BT has a converged network for its fixed broadband, mobile and video functions.  Instead of a fixed mobile team and a wireless team, BT has a network team that handles all of the heavy lifting.  A converged network with disaggregation plays to BT's team strength.

"We've been able to bring video, mobile and fixed functions together and I think the vendors don't want to sell you something for that," he said. "They want to sell you something completely apart because they obviously make more money that way. I might want to buy something that can do much more bulk.  We see white boxes as a way to achieve our ambitions of integrating broadband, WiFi, cellular and other technologies in a much more converged way than perhaps people would expect.

"In the first place, it makes no difference to customers, but for us as an operator it’s a massive difference. It also allows us to launch converged solutions later on."

In addition to building common service models to enable deep network automation, BT is also developing cloud-native applications. 

"Where we're focused on is what I would call more real cloud-native developments where we are deploying as much as we can to containerize our base solutions," McRae said. "With cloud native, we just feel our base solutions will scale better, they're more manageable and they enable us to do continuous feature adds. They are much easier to deal with.

"That's more where our focus is for things like TV in particular but also converting voice applications as well.  Cloud-native and containers are the right direction for us and some of our IT estate is cloud native today."

On the software-defined networking (SDN) side of BT, the telco rolled out its SD-WAN service, which it calls BT Agile Connect, in September by working with Nokia's Nuage Networks and Cisco. McRae said BT was cautiously rolling out SD-WAN to its customers "because moving from MPLS VPNs to SD-WAN drives a big change in how customers get the most out of their networks."

"SD-WAN has many advantages, but MPLS also has key strengths that customers value and we bring the two of those things together in the best interests of our customers," he said. "We've got loads of customers on SD-WAN and it's going very well.

"The Nuage and Nokia guys have been hugely supportive and our customers love it. We’ve also launched Cisco IWAN and Cisco Meraki SD-WAN."