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5 Charts That Summarize the State of Optical Automation in 2022

August 10, 2022
By Teresa Monteiro
Director of Solutions, Software and Automation

Infinera recently teamed up with Heavy Reading and three other transport network suppliers to conduct an operator survey addressing Open, Automated and Programmable Transport Networks, coordinated by Heavy Reading’s Sterling Perrin. The comprehensive results of this project have just been published in a white paper. In this blog, I will be focusing on five questions and answers included in the survey that shine a light on the status and expectations for the automation of optical networks – a topic that, as you may know, is very close to my heart.

The Crucial Functions of the Optical Layer

As I commented in one of my most recent blogs, the optical network has been seen as mostly static by network operators, who have needed no more from it than reliable connectivity between endpoints. My understanding, from discussions with network operators and from attending industry events, is that this perspective is changing dramatically. There is a need for elastic optical networks that can scale and adapt quickly to customer demands, with resources that are used efficiently, and that offer superior resiliency. So, what better opportunity than a survey to ask network operators directly what functions they need from the optical layer?

Figure 1: What functions do you need from the optical layer?

The very good news is that few see optical networks as dumb pipes to transport their traffic. Operators identify a strong need to move capacity around remotely, in a flexible and dynamic manner, and to activate new services with minimal site visits. This is why software automation solutions that allow for pre-deployed hardware to be remotely activated in capacity increments when and where needed, and for capacity to be moved around the network cost-effectively, are paramount. Infinera’s Instant Bandwidth, a game-changing solution introduced over 10 years ago that has continued to be improved and extended over time, offers the ability to remotely deploy and transfer capacity in the network using flexible software licenses, reducing truck rolls and helping to match the timing of capital expenses to service revenue.

Are We Open Yet?

Much has been said about the value of open optical networks and the steps that have been taken to enable network operators to extend the open network paradigm to the optical layer. But are network operators really making the transition to multi-vendor open optical networking?

Figure 2: When does your organization plan to deploy open line systems together with disaggregated transponders/transponders from another vendor?

According to our survey results, by the end of 2023, half of the operators expect to deploy disaggregated transponders over open line systems. What does that mean in terms of network automation? We have all heard operators voice concerns about the operational complexity of multi-vendor optical networks. Software and automation solutions are key to overcoming these difficulties – my take is that operators are optimistic about open optical network adoption because they trust that software and automation solutions that ease the support of transponders over any line system, such as Infinera’s Open Wave Manager, are available and up to the task.

Drivers for Automating Open

To be on point, the survey asked network operators what is driving the automation of open optical networks.

Figure 3: What are the most important drivers for managing and automating your open optical network?

The top response (optimize network capacity and fiber utilization) is a natural concern given the challenges operators are facing in terms of new demands as well as costs vs. revenue. Another topic that is highlighted is the need to maintain end-to-end network visibility and consolidate network inventory when moving to open networking; this also does not surprise me, as this aspect has been raised in many conversations with our customers. Looking deeper in the data, I found it interesting that respondents who are “optical specialists” recognize more value in the automation of the calculation of optimal coherent transponder settings and simplification of wavelength turn-up.

Planning Needs to Open up

How to design and plan an open optical network and route wavelength services over it is also a topic that deserves attention.

Figure 4: What type of tool will you use for planning services over an open optical network, including optical performance considerations?

While the respondents show a clear preference for truly multi-vendor planning tools, they favor solutions developed by equipment vendors rather than those based on open-source software. In my discussions with service providers, they want clear responsibility and accountability for the network planning process and its results, which is harder to get when using community developed tools. That’s why I believe we see the vendor-oriented preference in these results.

Will ML Come to the Rescue?

Optical networks, and open optical networks in particular, are full of complex problems well suited for machine learning (ML) approaches – the network planning and optical performance aspect mentioned above is just one of them. But what are the priority ML use cases in the open optical domain – those with greater benefits, where the outcomes significantly exceed those of traditional approaches and where we are able to gather large, representative datasets for real-world usage, while respecting data ownership and security?

Figure 5: Which of these operational functions will benefit the most from machine learning in an open optical network?

Clearly that answer is still up for grabs, with many functions appearing promising – but I quite like seeing self-tuning transponders, i.e., transponders that can identify and recommend their optimal operating mode, flagged as highly beneficial by the optical experts. This is particularly interesting if you think of modern high-end optical engines, such as ICE6, that offer extensive programmability and hundreds of modes of operation.

For the sake of keeping this blog short and focused, I have only covered some of the insightful results of this Heavy Reading survey. I encourage you to read the full white paper and listen to the replay of the Light Reading webinar, where I and other industry voices discuss its main findings.