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MWC 2024: AI, AI, and a Little More AI…

Jon Baldry

March 21, 2024
By Jon Baldry
Director, Metro Networking

Anyone who has ever attended MWC, previously called Mobile World Congress, in Barcelona will know just how crazily busy the show is. This year the event was almost back to pre-pandemic levels, with over 101,000 attendees and more than 2,700 exhibitors and sponsors. There were lots of people, lots of booths spread across numerous event halls, and lots of buzz around anything connected to the mobile industry.

MWC at Fira Barcelona (Source: GSMA)

Source: GSMA

As always, the Infinera team was there in force at the show. The days were very long, with lots of good meetings, and a really high level of interaction with customers and prospects. Of course, the nice tapas and local vino in the evenings helps with crazy weeks like this!

The AI Buzz

This year the main topic of conversation at the show was artificial intelligence (AI). Everywhere you looked there was messaging around AI and new AI-based capabilities that would differentiate network operators or change life as we know it for everyone, usually in a positive way. Nearly all the media coverage included AI in some form or another. One interesting point of non-AI news that I spotted in the coverage of the event by Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence, was that according to the event statistics published by the GSMA, over 50% of the attendees were from outside the telecommunications industry. These folks were mainly from connected vertical industries that rely on telecom, be it fixed or mobile, to advance their own industry sectors. This possibly goes some way to explaining the level of excitement around AI.

However, I am old enough to remember that the telecom industry, and the optical networking industry in particular, has collectively gotten a little bit overexcited about many things in the past. So, we need to keep a realistic view of how much AI will impact optical networking. One thing is clear: the current level of AI processing traffic within the data center isn’t all going to spill out and become data center interconnect (DCI) traffic requiring DWDM-based optical networking solutions. The economics of this simply doesn’t stack up. The volume of new AI traffic is so high it would simply be too expensive for operators to move all of it between data centers. And AI processing is typically latency sensitive, so wherever possible, data center operators will keep as much AI traffic within the data center as they can.

But the use of AI is still relatively in its infancy, and it is expected to grow rapidly over the next few years. This will drive enormous levels of AI data processing within the data center, which in turn will drive further innovation to support intra-data center connectivity workloads. Inevitably these AI-driven workloads will lead to some of this connectivity spilling out of the data center into DCI networks once available space and power inside the data center is exhausted. From our discussions with data center owners, we know that AI traffic is a contributor to DCI traffic, and strong DCI growth is one of the drivers behind the planned migration to 800G ZR/ZR+ intelligent coherent optics that is anticipated to start in early 2025. We need to view AI-initiated traffic in optical networks through a realistic and pragmatic lens, but over time AI will help drive DCI capacity.

Using AI/ML to Improve Network Operations and End-user Experience

The other aspect to consider with AI within optical networking is the use of AI, or really machine learning (ML), to help network operators simplify the operational aspects of running optical networks. Many operators are struggling to staff their operations teams, meaning these teams need to cover an ever-increasing number of networking applications and vendors/systems. ML has the potential to help these network operations teams with network monitoring and preemptive advice to help them spot potential issues in the network or provide guidance when network issues occur. Essentially, AI/ML has the potential to help operators manage networks and to help bring the whole network operations team up to the same skill set as the most proficient team member.

While at MWC, I had a quick interview with NextGenInfra.io discussing these two aspects of the impact of AI on the optical networking industry. You can watch it here.

It’s Not All About AI…

Naturally, the Infinera team discussed a lot more than just AI/ML in our customer meetings. The optical networking buzz focused on a range of topics, from 5G xHaul networks to transoceanic subsea projects. There was significant interest in the advances we’ve been making with our range of intelligent coherent pluggables and the progress we’ve been making with the commercially available 100G/400G ICE-X modules and 800G modules that are on the horizon. We also discussed the latest developments with our multi-haul GX Series, such as the recently announced open optical line system enhancements, and the platform’s applicability in all those applications from the metro through to subsea.

That’s a Wrap on MWC 2024

So that brings my MWC 2024 wrap-up to a close. It was a very busy week with lots of interesting discussions and lots of new ideas for network operators to digest as they plan their continued network evolutions.

AI was by far the biggest hot topic across the show. The video above gives a little more of the optical networking perspective on the impact of AI/ML on the industry. If you are interested in this topic and would like to read more, then I’d highly recommend this article in Mission Critical Magazine by my colleague Tim Doiron.

I’m sure 2025 will bring another crazy week in Barcelona, and it’ll be interesting to see how the AI hype and excitement has moved on after another 12 months of progress.