AT&T just announced the first major deployment of SDN. They will be introducing more than 60,000 ‘white box’ routers into their cellular networks. White box means that the routers are essentially blank generic hardware that comes with no software or operating systems. This differs from the normal routers from companies like Cisco that come with a full suite of software that defines how the box will function. In fact, from a cost perspective the software costs a lot more than the software in a traditional router.
AT&T will now be buying low-cost hardware and will load their own software onto the boxes. This is not a new concept and the big data center companies like Facebook and Google have been doing this for several years. SDN let’s a provider load only the software they need to support just the functions they need. The data center providers say that simplifying the software saves them a fortune in power costs and air conditioning since the routers are far more efficient.
AT&T is a little late to the game compared to the big web companies, and it’s probably taken them a lot longer to develop their own proprietary suite of cell site software since it’s a lot more complicated than switches in a big data center. They wouldn’t want to hand their cell sites over to new software until it’s been tested hard in a variety of environments.
This move will save AT&T a lot of money over time. There’s the obvious savings on the white box routers. But the real savings is in efficiency. AT&T has a fleet of employees and contractors whose sole function is to upgrade cell sites. If you’ve followed the company you’ve seen that it takes them a while to introduce upgrades into their networks as technicians often have to visit every cell site, each with different generics of operating hardware and software.
The company will still need to visit cell sites to make hardware changes, but the promise of SDN is that software changes can be implemented across their whole network in a short period of time. This means they can fix security flaws or introduce new features quickly. They will have a far more homogeneous network where cell sites use the same generics of hardware and software, which should reduce glitches and local problems. The company will save a lot on labor and contractor costs.
This isn’t good news for the rest of the industry. This means that Cisco and other router makers are going to sell far fewer telecom-specific routers. The smaller companies in the country have always ridden the coattails of AT&T and Verizon, whose purchase of switches and routers pulled down the cost of these boxes for everybody else. These big companies also pushed the switch manufacturers to constantly improve their equipment, and the volume of boxes sold justified the router manufacturers to do the needed R&D.
You might think that smaller carriers could also buy their own white box routers to also save money. This looks particularly attractive since AT&T is developing some of the software collaboratively with other carriers and making the generic software available to everybody. But the generic base software is not the same software that will run AT&T’s new boxes. They’ve undoubtedly sunken tens of millions into customizing the software further. Smaller carriers won’t have the resources to customize this software to make it fully functional.
This change will ripple through the industry in other ways. For years companies often hired technicians who had Cisco certification on various types of equipment, knowing that they understood the basics of how the software could be operated. But as Cisco and other routers are edged out of the industry there are going to be far fewer jobs for those who are Cisco certified. I saw an article a few years ago that predicted that SDN would decimate the technician work force by eliminating a huge percentage of jobs over time. AT&T will need surprisingly few engineers and techs at a central hub now to update their whole network.
We’ve known this change has been coming for five years, but now the first wave of it is here. SDN will be one of the biggest transformational technologies we’ve seen in years – it will make the big carriers nimble, something they have never been. And they are going to make it harder over time for all of the smaller carriers that compete with them – something AT&T doesn’t mind in the least.