For Optical Switches, Less Is More

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-08-06

The worlds leading supplier of key optical components believes it will be two years before the biggest all-optical switches are widely deployed, but the market remains strong for switching light waves on smaller systems.

OMM, which makes subsystems for optical cross-connects, has stopped manufacturing its biggest all-optical switching port because it sees no market for handling 256 wavelengths at once.

The company will instead focus on a smaller, mirror-operated switch that transfers signals across four, eight or 16 wavelengths — an area where the market for all-optical switches remains strong, said Conrad Burke, OMMs senior vice president for marketing. Unlike the giant all-optical switches designed for long-haul networks, the smaller systems are being deployed in metro rings and all the way to the buildings of large businesses.

"Were seeing a much slower pickup" in demand for the cross-connect switches for 256 wavelengths or more, Burke said, referring to large 3D arrays that use micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) to rotate hundreds of mirrors, sending traffic to any one of hundreds of ports that carry individual data streams on their way. "The competing OEO [optical-electronic-optical] technology may have a longer lifetime in the larger switch fabrics."

If OMM is right about the market trend, thats bad news for equipment vendors such as Corning, Corvis, Lucent Technologies and Nortel Networks, which buy the cross-connect subsystems from OMM or develop their own. All of those companies dumped tens of millions of dollars into research, development or actual deployment of the large-port all-optical switches. But most carriers are reluctant to spend a lot of money on technology that claims big savings, but has not yet been proven.

"OMM was a little ahead of the pack, so theyre bearing the brunt of the slowdown," said Marlene Bourne, Cahners In-Stat Groups MEMS technology analyst. "The monster switches are still a year or two away from any volume of any kind."

On the other hand, Bourne is already hearing that vendors are ramping up their purchases of the smaller ports with the all-optical mirror technology. "Companies Ive talked to remain optimistic that the ramp-up for low-volume ports will happen toward the end of this year," she said.

Rocket Fuel