Verizon has taken the first step toward "true" white boxes that will eventually rely on merchant silicon instead of vendor-specific ASICs.
Verizon's partnership with router vendors Cisco and Juniper Networks yielded white boxes that decouple those vendors' software from hardware to create a multiservice edge platform.
While that decoupling does further sever the hardware bond between Verizon and its vendors, at the same it pushes Cisco and Juniper toward the software solutions that telcos are now seeking.
Michael Altland, Verizon's director of network infrastructure planning, said the key for Cisco and Juniper was pulling their software from their routers and then putting them onto the common compute x86 boxes while maintaining the same levels of technical requirements such as failure characteristics and scalability.
"This is the early steps of white boxes in a WAN environment," Altland said. "It's not true white box where you are running merchant silicon. It's still custom silicon and controlled by that vendor's software, but they are no longer tightly coupled in terms of if you run out of control plane resources you exhaust the entire router. Now I have the flexibility to scale the control plane separately from the hardware."
The eventual endgame is to evolve to true white boxes that can tap into merchant silicon instead of vendor silicon. Altland said the new boxes were beneficial to both capital expense and operating expense for Verizon. By being able to buy white boxes off the shelf, telcos will pay less while also gaining operational efficiencies such as flexibility and scalability.
"Right now this is our go forward platform in the edge and what we will do is evolve more technology into that true white box approach," Altland said. "Can I use this with merchant silicon and what are the other places I can use this outside of the data center?"
Altland said the telco started working with Cisco and Juniper about two years ago to move the vendor software control to a single common compute-based platform using an x86 architecture.
"In the current network infrastructure, we have multiple edge routers or service edges based on what that service is," Altland said. "One of the challenges we run into is really about scalability and there's two forms of that. It's scalability on the hardware throughput capabilities of a box, or scalability of the software control component of it. In a lot of cases one scales better than the other for a certain environment or you exhaust one resource but you still have plenty of the other that you could use but you can't in reality because they are tied together."
Decoupling the hardware from the software also speeds up deployment times for Verizon and other operators.
"If I run out of software resources on the control plane I can spin up another version of that using the same hardware I have in the field without needing to redeploy anything," Altland said. "So it gives me a lot of flexibility in that manner."
The new approach to routers was enabled by Verizon's software-defined networking, which is tied to its automation strategy, according to Altland. Verizon started deploying the decoupled boxes earlier this year on its IP networks and plans on rolling them out through the end of next year. Eventually, the new edge boxes, which can be used for Ethernet, Internet and VPN-based services, will replace all of the legacy edge routing functions on the telco's networks.
Altland said he wasn't aware of other operators using the same approach to decoupling hardware and software, but that Cisco and Juniper were in talks with additional service providers. Taking a different tack to the same issue, AT&T announced at the Open Networking Summit that it had put its disaggregated open source system for white boxes into open source with the Linux Foundation. AT&T's Disaggregated Network Operating System separates a router's network operating system software from the hardware.