AT&T's Move Toward White Box Switches Signals Faster Innovation For Partners

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AT&T is considering swapping out some of its Cisco switches with a networking switch of its own design. While that would mean a possible revenue hit for Cisco, it could mean faster innovation and more development opportunities for the carrier's channel partners.

The Dallas-based carrier is planning to develop its own networking hardware in which to route traffic through its network, according to a report published by The Information citing sources familiar with the "the switch project." By replacing comparatively expensive Cisco equipment with cheaper, white box alternatives from Asian manufacturers, AT&T can run its own, customized software on its networking infrastructure, and save millions on licensing fees and associated hardware upgrades over time.

For partners, this move will mean faster service delivery and innovation from AT&T, as well as the opportunity to develop their services on top of the more open AT&T network, said Rickie Richey, CEO of Fairhope, Ala.-based Altaworx, an AT&T Platinum partner.

[Related: Partner Exchange Milestone: AT&T Tells Partners To Keep An Eye On IoT, Fiber Opportunities]

AT&T declined CRN's request for comment on the latest report, but the carrier has publicly committed to virtualize 75 percent of its network functions by 2020. To reach this goal, AT&T has said that an open source, white box approach is the best way. By 2017, AT&T said it had already virtualized 55 percent of its network.

According to a blog post written in late March by the carrier, AT&T plans to install over 60,000 white box routers in its cell towers to power its 5G mobile network over the next several years. "This isn’t a vision. It’s a plan that we are committed to," AT&T wrote in its blog post.

Because AT&T already developed its own Linux-based operating system for routing, building its own switches for its routing software is the logical next step, Richey said.

"I think it's really going to help AT&T develop 5G faster and build out their software-defined network," he said.

Down the road, channel partners could develop their own solutions and more tightly integrate new services with the AT&T network, if both are based on open source infrastructure, Richey said.

The move to white box switching represents potentially a big blow for networking hardware giant Cisco, which relies on telecom providers and large enterprises as its primary customers for its networking gear. In recent years, these large customers have been moving away from commercial hardware in favor of more open source based hardware that they can more easily customize. Cisco did not reply to a request for comment.

"Service providers moving to open-source [hardware] could really change the networking hardware business substantially," Richey added.

According to reports, the switch project is well underway and the deployment of thousands of white box switches planned for 2019, with first prototypes slated to be completed by June.

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