Faster than light

Optical network technology, once the preserve of service providers, is starting to make its way into the corporate IT department.

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Faster than light
By  Piers Ford Published  October 12, 2011

Optical network technology, once the preserve of service providers, is starting to make its way into the corporate IT department.

Bandwidth hunger is kick-starting an optical network revolution in the Middle East. As enterprises wake up to the benefits of 40 and 100Gbps networks – and vendors begin to deliver commercial ports that will help to drive the advantages of optical packet switching to the heart of the business – the technology looks set to advance into the corporate space from its heartland in the service provider and public sector markets.

“The last 25 years of optical networking hardware have involved the use of optical technology to perform one single function: the transport of data packets and information,” says John Dunne, CTO at backhaul network specialist Intune Networks.

“The next 25 years of optical networking hardware will involve the use of technology to perform both transport and other, more sophisticated, functions such as packet flow aggregation, grooming and switching – currently performed using electronic packet switching.”

Industry watchers agree that this shift offers an important opportunity for network managers in the region to grasp the potential benefits of optical switching – particularly where they have the luxury of green field sites – and begin future-proofing their infrastructures to support high-speed networks.

“Developing countries such as Qatar, preparing to host the World Cup, are examining how to upgrade their infrastructures to embrace the digital age,” says Dunne. “They have an opportunity to leapfrog over a generation of electronic switches and progress directly to optical packet switching.

“This opportunity has simply not been available as an option before now, as the growth of internet traffic and digital services such as mobile phone applications have only been driving the market for the past five years. The technology was not mature enough five years ago and the technology was suffering from the global bubble that burst in 2002.

“Lack of market and lack of innovations blocked the availability of optical packet switching. Now that has changed and we’re among the first to market with this new wave of technology.”

And where pioneers like Intune lead, the giants are sure to follow. Cisco, for example, has invested heavily in technology that simplifies the design and construction of Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) optical networks.

Cisco’s TransportPlanner is a comprehensive DWDM network design and design-management tool that, according to systems engineering manager Paulo Pereira, allows customers to concentrate on service definition and availability while simplifying the process of comparing alternative service delivery and investment scenarios.

“Optical networking is the only real answer to the never ending increase in bandwidth demand,” says Pereira, “and as decision makers continue to look for the best economics to accommodate these needs, they should take into consideration the end-to-end total cost of ownership and avoid analysing their networks in isolation.

“In doing so, they should consider the benefits that arise from the introduction of technologies such as IP over DWDM (IPoDWDM), which integrate DWDM capabilities directly into the router interfaces and in a very simple and efficient way, deliver a significant reduction in capital expenditures as well as improve the operational efficiency of the network.”

By incorporating optical technology into their network strategies – which might include situating new data centres as close to fibre network locations as possible to take maximum advantage of the benefits – CTOs could potentially store a substantial reserve of competitive advantage for the future.

According to Pereira, this includes the ability to keep a tight handle on investment costs by multiplexing multiple optical signals into an existing fibre, continuing to support high bit rates and more capacity without having to lay more fibre in the ground.

Asset utilisation could be increased by a factor of four or five times with this strategy, suggests John Dunne – dramatically reducing the cost of rolling out new services for telecoms operators in particular.

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