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Face-to-Face Meetings Bring New Optical Networking Vibes

October 7, 2021
By Christian Uremovic
Director, Solutions Marketing

Insights and trends from recent face-to-face meetings with service providers

In the past few weeks, I have had my first face-to-face customer meetings since the lockdowns, and I must say they were so refreshing. Meeting in person enabled me to read the room and the facial expressions and body language of our customers.  We were able to pivot to other topics and discussions quickly and easily.  We even talked about our personal lives and how we dealt with the pandemic during coffee breaks.  On a personal level it just felt so fun and satisfying.  I guess I missed seeing people in person more than I realized.

On the other hand, I have also realized how time-consuming traveling is. The inconveniences of getting to the airport a little bit ahead of time, waiting for boarding to start, walking through airports and to gates and taxi stations, waiting in traffic jams, being rather a bit more early for meetings, and many more time-consuming activities in a typical trip have become more obvious. One good aspect of traveling, though, is that it gives me time to listen to my playlists of my favorite artists that I have not had the chance to listen to for a long time and enjoy music from Pearl Jam, Sia, Ripe & Ruin, and others.

How will the meeting landscape evolve over time? Online meetings have shown some efficiency, and climate change will surely influence our travel frequency too. At the same time, in-person meetings can’t really be replaced. Personally, I think we will value face-to-face meetings much more, and we will experience a new balance between fewer but more impactful face-to-face meetings, with online meetings where we all have established the “new normal” in between.

In the remainder of this blog, I share the discussions, challenges, and trends I have been seeing in our recent customer meetings.

Optical Transport Networks Are Becoming More Important to Operators

Optical networks are becoming more important and strategic to operators. The service providers we have met with are seeing traffic growth challenges driven by the move to cloud networking as well as challenges with the acceleration of network dynamics imposed by 5G. There are also more fiber optic cables being deployed  across the globe, including new subsea cables like the recently launched Ellalink, which provides a direct connection between Latin America and Europe, or the 33-country 2Africa project, which is still in planning but will become the world’s largest subsea cable. Others are being upgraded, like the Seaborn cable that now supports 400 GbE services. We are also seeing (finally) in Germany an uptake on fiber to the home (FTTH) rollouts – connect my home please!

In core networks, existing fibers and cables are being utilized more efficiently using new 800G coherent technologies like Infinera ICE6 that are improving the spectral efficiency (fiber utilization) and unregenerated reach of high-speed wavelengths. One example is the pan-European research and education network GÉANT. Further, core and metro networks are being upgraded with flexible grid technology to support these new coherent optics, saving on cost per bit per kilometer.

We have also heard about a few projects that are being upgraded from GPON to XGS-PON, which means that we will have to deal with higher capacities in metro networks. DWDM optics are increasingly being deployed in access and metro networks, like Infinera Auto-Lambda, which helps reduce the amount of active equipment in networks and reduces efforts in deploying and operating DWDM networks. We have been collaborating with Globe in the Philippines to transform their 5G mobile network with Auto-Lambda technology, as an example.

Getting More Clever

Another observation is the desire for improved network architectures – improved in terms of reducing power consumption and carbon footprint, improved in scalability, improved in simplification and automation. I think there is a clear message that we simply can’t address today’s exponential traffic growth with the way we used to build networks.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into some of these aspects.

The time for large chassis-based solutions seems over. The need for high-capacity, power-hungry large OTN switching solutions is vanishing due to various changes in networking requirements. A more intelligent approach, with a mix of switching where you need to and grooming where you can, is addressing these evolved requirements much better. The growth of the number of high-speed services like 100 GbE and 400 GbE in transport networks also makes these large OTN switching solutions less effective. This hybrid Xponder and OTN switch approach is reducing power-per-gigabit transport significantly, improving service latency, and helping operators reduce their total cost of ownership while accelerating innovation rollout like the following illustration shows.

Diagram of full OTN switching vs. hybrid OTN switching and transponders

I have also heard more requests for and questions on ROADM technology and its evolution. ROADMs have demonstrated increased value in operators’ networks, as they are improving time to market and offer flexibility when expanding network capacity and introducing new coherent technologies in metro and core/long-haul networks. Expressing wavelengths using ROADM technology is not only more cost-effective and less power-hungry compared to hop-by-hop networks; it also improves service latency and reduces the number of transceivers required, and hence the number of ports, sleds/cards, and active equipment is reduced.

And sure, everyone who has read and heard about it is asking about XR optics. This brand-new technology and the industry’s first point-to-multipoint coherent optics solution is revolutionizing network aggregation. With XR optics, more effective networks can be designed, simplifying overall architectures and reducing equipment and costs. Among other benefits, XR optics reduces the need for site visits during capacity upgrades and enables multi-generational networking because, for the first time in our industry, lower-speed optical interfaces can interface with higher-speed optical interfaces. Everyone is trying to map this technology to their specific use cases. Some have use cases for an enhanced break-out cable application, some for enhanced point-to-point IPoDWDM connectivity, and the majority for point-to-multipoint use cases like illustrated below.

Diagram of traditional point-to-point optical solutions vs. XR optics-enabled point-to-multipoint solution

The technology has so many more aspects and benefits, and it has generated exceptional market interest. You can find out more information about it on Infinera’s website.

Automation and Open Networking Rising to the Top of the List

In one of my last blogs, I reflected on the Light Reading Digital Symposium, where I had participated in a panel. In all the discussions there, operators echoed and shared the key aspects we discussed.

Native support for standards-based open APIs in optical transport network gear is significantly improving operational aspects and accelerating network automation implementations. As a matter of fact, one major operator just recently pointed out to us that he was so glad to work with our solution, as its integration into their software ecosystem was easy and fast, utilizing native open APIs. They were also able to leverage Python scripts seamlessly with our solution and could automate testing and qualification.

Another observation is that software-defined networking (SDN) is increasingly being deployed in the optical domains of service provider networks. SDN controllers are being implemented with the primary goal of enabling legacy networks for network automation and utilizing advanced applications such as path computation and end-to-end multi-layer service provisioning in multi-vendor networks.

We also hear that more and more open-source software tools are being utilized and are helping with analytical and operational use cases. Open networking initiatives like TIP and other industry standardization bodies and alignments like OIF, IETF, and Open ROADM MSA are further accelerating the adoption of open networking and proving its benefits. Operators have an increased interest in these activities and want to learn more about them.

Summary

I think it is really a great time to be in the optical transport network business right now, as we have several major new inflection points. New innovations are adding huge value, and with recent evolutions in network automation, innovations in the optical layer, and innovations on coherent optical engines such as ICE6 and XR optics, we are radically improving network operators’ TCO, reducing power consumption significantly, and accelerating network automation. These evolutions are in turn making positive impacts on the higher transport layers, leading to an overall more effective, greener, more dynamic, and more automated network. I am really looking forward to more face-to-face and online meetings where we can discuss these inflection points and how to start building smarter networks.