A coast-to-coast network trial by AT&T last month, using open-source “white box” switches, pointed toward an imagined future of more reliable services that may come quicker than some people think.

The carrier ran a trial on its core network earlier this year using switches based on chips from Intel, Broadcom and startup Barefoot Networks. The latter only started shipping in sample quantities in December, making the trial deployment a remarkably quick turnaround.

Like other carriers and cloud providers, AT&T is aggressively shifting its network toward SDN (software-defined networking). As these changes are carried out across more infrastructure, they should give both service providers and subscribers more flexibility and higher performance.

AT&T called its trial the first of its kind in the telecommunications industry. It set up white-box switches from two different manufacturers, using processors from the three merchant-silicon vendors, and ran an open network OS from SnapRoute on all three. The trial involved carrying customer traffic across the U.S. on the carrier’s core network.

stands out because of its capabilities and the fact that it’s so new. Announced last June, the Tofino is designed to be more highly programmable than conventional switching silicon. It also promises high performance, going through packets at 6.5Tbps (bits per second).

After the processor started sampling in December, AT&T started working with Barefoot and white-box manufacturer Edgecore Networks. (Switch builder Agema Systems also participated in the trial.) Less than three months later, they had a switch based on Facebook’s design that not only did standard routing but also was programmed for new packet-processing functions. Those capabilities provide real-time information about the state of every packet on the network, said Andre Fuetsch, chief technology officer and president of AT&T Labs.

He compared this new visibility to the move from X-ray to MRI (magnetic resonance imagery) in medicine. It will open up new capabilities the same way adding GPS to phones did, Fuetsch said. This will help AT&T deliver 5G wireless features including high speed and low latency, he said.