Cisco, Other Network Innovators Using Photons to Build Datacenter Bandwidth


To meet the crush unleashed by increasing transfer speeds and the corresponding rise in data flowing through customer infrastructures, US network hardware makers are using light itself to tackle the problem, boosting capacity and efficiency as they move closer to terabit territory for their switches and routers.

Last week, Cisco Systems completed a $660 million acquisition of Luxtera, Inc. The Carlsbad, California, specialist builds integrated optics capabilities for web-scale and datacenter applications that Cisco is folding into products and services for what it calls “Intent-Based Networking.”

The technology at work converts data to photons that then are beamed over fiber optic cables and into chipsets purpose-built for networking applications. As a result, the company says, users can hyperscale their networks to meet rising demand while cutting infrastructure costs.

That’s because unlike their copper-wire counterparts, fiber optics can accommodate more than single-signal transmissions. Increasing bandwidth to reduce bottlenecks is seen as a prime means of reining in energy usage – up to 95% in chip-to-chip communications, according to Ayar LabsOpens a new window , a start-up based at MIT also developing photonic transmission tech.

Companies Spring into Optical Action as Ethernet Picks Up the Pace

With the ongoing quadrupling of Ethernet speeds as they rise to 400Gb, Cisco’s purchase illustrates that networking systems and software vendors are looking for ways to ensure their carrier, cloud and enterprise customers make the most of the increased transmission capacity.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers sets Ethernet standards, with a roadmap released last year by industry trade body Ethernet Alliance, forecasting speed to reach 1.6Tb by the middle of the next decade.

Like Cisco, other US makers are upgrading their offerings to leverage the efficiencies offered by faster throughput. So, too, is Finland’s Nokia, which on-boarded photonic tech with its 2016 acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent, and China’s Huawei, which in 2012 purchased a dedicated photonic development facility in the UK.

Last week, California-based Juniper Networks said that its Triton chipsets made to accommodate 400GbE will hit the market later this year. Timed to coincide with the opening of the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in late February, the news is among the many innovationsOpens a new window Juniper is building into its products for the 5G telecommunications infrastructure currently rolling out across the US.

They follow upgrades to software suites for Wide Area Networks and the datacenters aimed at efficiencies in packet transfer, including for video and for the traffic increases expected from 5G’s expanded frequency spectrum.

Juniper says the improvements will allow customers to scale their networks with distributed peering of compute functions to better cope with the data deluge.

Juniper, too, is investing in photonic technology. In 2016, it bought Santa Barbara-based specialist Aurrion for an undisclosed sum. In March, 2018, the company began showcasing a photonic chipset for the 100GbE standard that 400GbE is replacing.

Incremental Upgrades Keep Existing Structures in the Game

Elsewhere, Silicon Valley’s Arista Networks is using optics for compatibility, allowing customers to create spine-and-leaf structures with existing 100GbE server ports. Built with Broadcom Tomahawk 3Opens a new window chips that can process better than 12tb of switching instructions per second, Arista’s technology lets the fabric that connects those machines operate on the faster standard.

Cisco, which made its first foray into photonics in 2012 with the $271 million acquisition of specialist concern Lightwire, says that rather than migrating en masse to cloud structures, enterprise users are incorporating them into their pre-existing IT landscape.

They’re using as-a-service software applications that are cloud native to migrate compute conducted in on-premises datacenters to the cloud in piecemeal fashion.

The Lightwire purchase yielded Cisco’s first photonic transceiver, the CPAK, which debuted in 2013. While the unit lost a form-factor race, it’s reportedly still at work on client-side datacenter applications. In the interim, it has pioneered the concept of Intent-Based Networking, a paradigm for platform and datacenter construction that sees dedicated hardware augmented with artificial intelligence to automatically monitor, scale and secure networks and execute preventative maintenance based on those reports.

Published in November, 2018, Swedish maker Ericsson’s 2018 Mobility ReportOpens a new window forecasts a fivefold rise in mobile traffic by 2024- and this on a 79% rise year-on-year experienced in the third quarter of 2018.

Around one-quarter of the traffic will come from 5G as its use becomes commonplace in the US and global markets, according to the company’s research.

While analysts predict the demand growth for photonic and other network innovations to gain pace with the adoption of 400GbE, the industry is less sanguine. As with the staggered rollout of 5G, manufacturers say there are interim steps and standardsOpens a new window that need to be achieved on the way to critical mass.