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uCPE/vCPE: Death of the magical black box

Jul 17, 2018

People today are accustomed to getting their internet from a proprietary, provisioned black box at their homes, but now MSP’s are looking to expand the capabilities of these customer-side appliances with the advent of uCPE and vCPE.

Managed Service providers continue to leverage virtualization and edge computing capabilities to decrease OPEX, TTS (time-to-Service) and create new value-added services. This means adding embedded x86 computing capabilities to run the various VNF’s (virtualized network functions).

Due this virtualization enabling massive technological advancement with software-based systems, adoption of general purpose processors in consumer-edge equipment started to grow. Now instead of having the hardware decide the functionality of the device, MSPs can push software with the added Virtual network functions it needs.

What is a uCPE? What is a vCPE?

Traditional Consumer Premise Equipment (CPE) relied on hardware-based functionality also known as Physical Network Functions (PNF). Though ASIC’s (Application specific integrated circuit) are powerful and cost-effective,but their inflexibility put stringent limits on what the hardware could do.

uCPE – Universal CPE is a term coined by AT&T. It denotes a CPE that is not reliant on a centralized cloud for additional network functions & orchestration, but is instead entirely self-contained. Due to this, the hardware employed for uCPE will generally be quite a bit more powerful than for hybrid/cloud vCPE solutions.

vCPE– the most common concept of a software-defined CPE, it’s simply defined as any CPE that uses commodity hardware and virtualized network functions instead of proprietary ASIC’s performing the network functions. Cloud vCPE is a subset of vCPE’s that include remote carrier-grade management, deployment and orchestration functionality.

SD-WAN prime vCPE/uCPE use case

As enterprise applications and users increase their data consumption rates, Wide area network technologies like MPLS are being looked over in favor of more inexpensive – often hybrid- solutions.  MSP lines that are service assured with a SLA- (Service level agreement) are much more expensive than commodity ISP lines, and often times much faster and easier to acquire.

SD-WAN works by creating an overlay network, not unlike a VPN, therefore creating a carrier/service provider-agnostic solution. This means that even though the CPE can use inexpensive internet lines exclusively, one can also add in an MPLS WAN connection for absolutely critical applications. This flexibility is one of the main selling points for upcoming enterprise deployments.

Virtual Network Functions

These are the building blocks in a vCPE/uCPE. Routing, switching, spam filtering, malware detection, session controllers and a myriad of other functions have been virtualized into software allowing them to be deployed on standardized x86 hardware. Basic network function like routing are usually included in the vCPE OS platform, with more advanced functions provided as additional modules from third party VNF vendors.

Example of Network Functions that benefit from the reduced latency at the consumer edge:

Session Border Controller: these serve to optimize VoIP and provide a certain level in Quality of Service (QoS). The reduced overhead from the trip to a hosted vSBC in the service provider cloud can provide great improvements.

Firewall: For larger companies, hosting their own firewall improves security and proves a more cost-effective approach.

Blackbox vs Whitebox vs Greybox

Within the CPE space, there exists several subsets of hardware with black box being reserved for consumer premise systems running on top of purpose-built hardware. With the emergence of SDN/NFV, two other types of hardware have emerged: Greybox CPE, and whitebox CPE.

Greybox CPE:

Greybox CPE is sort of a middle ground between a blackbox CPE and a fully open whitebox appliance. They make use of ASICS (usually switch silicon) to accelerate certain network function cost-effectively. Due to this, their flexibility isn’t near the level of whitebox appliances, but they still provide general computing processors to enable extended functionality.

Whitebox CPE:

White box CPE is built on top of purely commodity x86 hardware, utilizing programmable Intel NICs (Network interface card). This allows for full flexibility in software deployment and is the ultimate step towards fully programmable, software defined networks.

Low-power multi-core white box CPEs for an SD-Branch network can be built on top of virtualization optimized Intel atom c3000 (Denverton) processors, while enterprise-grade whitebox CPEs can take advantage of powerful-yet-efficient Intel Xeon D 1548 processors.


This is an updated version of the original article posted on March 3, 2017.

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