Optical networking advice from industry group ON2020

Ethernet can be fast, but optical networking will always be faster. It's an open question whether speed alone will be optical's hero.

Image: iStock/kynny

An industry group called ON2020 is advocating for the use of optical technology in applications ranging from metropolitan-area networks that span corporate campuses all the way down to the chips inside your switches and routers.

Optical networking promises extreme data transfer speeds that Ethernet and other technologies can't match. It's always been popular for undersea cables, and there is an optical wire involved if your home has a service such as Verizon Fios, but now it is increasingly common for companies to install on their own networks, according to ON2020 steering committee member Peter Winzer.

Winzer observed that technology always flows downstream, starting from the top of a mountain: "Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft--they operate global fiber optic networks these days. They don't rely on service providers anymore to transport their data. All the other webscales will chime in," he said. ("Webscales" is lingo for massive web-based services.)

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The ON2020 group was formed by the IEEE, which in its 2017 International Roadmap for Devices and Systems noted, "Communications within the data centers and for long distances is handled via fiber optics because of their stellar low rate of attenuation... Since multiple applications [are] now residing within the same processor it followed that the rate at which inlet of data could be handled by a single server was drastically increased; this led to higher requirements of the optical networks operating within a data center. To satisfy this requirement single mode fibers are now being implemented in data centers."

"The enterprise of medium scale will probably not own their own fiber," Winzer said. "If your traffic approaches the terabit-per-second value between any of your locations, that's the point where I think it starts to be interesting to own or to lease fiber."

When shopping for installation or when hiring a fiber service provider, buy the biggest capacity you can afford, Winzer advised. A major caveat: Encrypt, encrypt, encrypt. "Fiber can be very easily tapped. It's very easy. All you need to do is bend it and the light comes out," Winzer said, and he wasn't joking. "What the industry offers is very strong integrated encryption inside our transmission products." Another caveat is latency: Data sent over fiber moves at the speed of light, but even that can be too slow for applications such as stock trading.

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Companies like Nokia Bell Labs, where Winzer is director of optical transmission subsystems research, currently have optical routing gear that can send data at 2.4 terabits per second. That compares to 400 gigabits per second for conventional Ethernet. But even in the fastest routers, data is limited by electrical connections between chips. "They will have to go optical at some point in time," Winzer said. "As time progresses, microprocessors and switch chips are able to scale more and more, but you just don't get the data out of them and that's a problem."

Fibre channel over the non-volatile memory express standard solves part of the problem, and there's a group in Europe called Network 2030 that is similar to ON2020's role here in the US, all working toward the goal of eliminating bottlenecks and satisfying humanity's desire for as much data as we can eat, as fast as possible.

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