Cisco's Davidson: Despite AT&T, there's no major move to disaggregation

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The majority of Cisco's service provider customers still favor integrated systems instead of disaggregation, according to Cisco's Jonathan Davidson. (FierceWireless)

While Cisco has long dabbled in white box deployments as part of its network disaggregation efforts, it's not quite ready to jump in with both feet.

Speaking at Monday's Credit Suisse 24th Annual Technology Conference, Cisco's Jonathan Davidson, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco Mass-Scale Infrastructure division, said he was proud of his company's work with AT&T that included using Cisco's IOS XR7 software on another vendor's white boxes.

RELATED: AT&T taps Cisco's NOS for its move to the disaggregated IP edge

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Last month, AT&T announced it was working with Broadcom, UfiSpace and Cisco on an open, disaggregated design at its converged IP edge. The disaggregated IP edge routing platform has been live in AT&T's production environment for over a month.

Disaggregation, the splitting of network elements into smaller parts, helps service providers break down their vertical service silos and enable the use of cheaper white box devices that work with other vendors' software.

While disaggregation mainly focuses on separating the hardware from the network operating system (NOs) and then putting the NOS on white boxes, it can also include disaggegating the software itself in order to only deploy the software that's needed on a device. In the latter instance, service providers are only paying for the pieces or elements of the software that they actually need.

AT&T said in its announcement that the first IP edge use case was peering, which is the system that connects AT&T's IP network with other internet service providers, according to a statement by Andre Fuetsch, AT&T’s CTO for network services. Fuetsch said AT&T was also working with Cisco to develop additional edge use cases such as broadband, IP content, Ethernet, mobility and VPN services.

AT&T is using white box routers from UfiSpace, which it's also using for its previously announced IP/MPLS core deployment. Over a year ago, AT&T put its specifications for its distributed disaggregated chassis (DDC) white box architecture into the Open Compute Project (OCP.)

In September, AT&T acknowledged for the first time that DriveNets was providing the core-networking routing software for its next-gen core network. Cisco got its foot in the door for the converged IP edge routing platform by providing its IOS-XR7 software to run on the UfiSpace boxes.

"I'm really proud of the partnership with AT&T around using our IOS XR7 software, and being able to put that onto white boxes," Davidson said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "The white boxes that they have are not too different from what we have on our own when we use our Broadcom silicon. We built very similar looking devices. So it wasn't much of a stretch to go and get that software to work on AT&T's specific platform.

"I'll call (out) that AT&T spends $20 billion plus a year on capex. So they've got the people and the investment and the scale needed to make disaggregation work. And we're seeing the same thing with kind of some of the top hyper-scale customers as well. They've got the scale, they've got the capex spend to go and make that work."

An integrated system plays into Cisco's strength of providing the routers, switches, software and silicon of its own design. Over the past several years, Cisco has been making the move to reoccurring revenues with software instead of just focusing on selling hardware.

"The majority of our customers need an integrated system," Davidson said. "They need to have one kind of throat to choke so to speak. They need to be able to have one phone number to call in case something breaks. They need global distribution of our warehouses, so that they can get RMAs (return material authorization) in a timely fashion."

Davidson said disaggregation puts service providers into an entirely different ecosystem. The hypserscale cloud providers and AT&Ts of the world have the technical know how and capex to embark on the disaggregation of the network.

"And so the things that you normally would get from Cisco, you now have to do a lot of those things on your own, because you've decided to go down this disaggregation path," Davidson said. "And if you have the scale and the technical competency and know-how, then it can make sense for you to do that."

Davidson said Cisco has engaged in open conversations with a broad portion of its customer base on the pluses and minuses of disaggregation, but after those conversations "a majority of them, by far, stick with the fully integrated model."

 "I definitely see that obviously we're going to keep with the disaggregation as a portion of our strategy, and we're going to continue to work with folks like AT&T and the hyperscale customers on this disaggregation," Davidson said.  "But I don't see any major movements towards this of my current customer base.

"Obviously, we are willing to stay very open and we're going to meet our customers wherever they want to meet us."