Optical LANs Starting to Move From Cloud Giants to Data Centers

By Jeff Burt  |  Posted 2014-04-21

Optical LANs Starting to Move From Cloud Giants to Data Centers

Elias Bernardino is the executive director of IS for Santa Fe (N.M.) Public Schools, a system that includes 14,000 students, 2,700 employees and 34 sites—including 32 schools—with 47 miles separating the two farthest buildings.

When Bernardino took over the position a couple of years ago, his predecessor had in place a plan to upgrade the local area network (LAN) for the school district with more copper wiring, a move in line with what the system already had in place. But Bernardino had other plans. After meeting with representatives from Tellabs, he scrapped the old plans, opting instead to deploy a new LAN based on fiber-optics technology.

Bernardino said he saw an opportunity to improve the speed and service to the school district's myriad buildings, students and staff, reduce maintenance costs, decrease the amount of cabling needed, increase flexibility and centralize the network management. And the savings derived from the change help offset whatever upfront costs there will be in deploying fiber optics in the LAN, he said.

"It is relatively cost-neutral," Bernardino told eWEEK, adding that for the school system to make an optical LAN something that could work for it in the long run, "we needed to cut down on our maintenance costs."

So far, the Santa Fe school district has done that and more. In the first year of a four-year plan, school officials put optical LAN technology into the Ramirez Thomas Elementary School, deploying devices for about 227 students, enabling eight "drops" per classroom, and saving enough money to cover an average teacher's salary. By the beginning of the 2014-15 school year, the district will have put Tellabs' optical LAN technology into six more schools.

Fiber optics removes the need for wiring closets and air conditioning units, requires less cabling than copper-based LANs, less power and fewer electronics, Bernardino said. It also reaches farther than copper—20 to 30 kilometers, compared with 100 meters for copper—enabling the school district to centralize management so that when a problem arises in a building, network technicians no longer have to drive miles out to remote buildings to fix the problem. It can be handled from a central location.

It also eliminates the need to upgrade cabling infrastructures, reducing operating expenses by ensuring that as technology evolves, the only components needing a refresh are the active endpoints.

"Not only are we saving [on] upfront [costs], but in the long run, our IT is more sustainable," he said.

Telecommunications companies (think Verizon's FiOS network) and big Web 2.0 organizations with hyperscale environments have embraced fiber optics in their network infrastructures—drawn by the advantages around cost, speed, distance, capacity and flexibility fiber offers over traditional copper cabling. But it's rarer in enterprise data centers.

However, with such trends as cloud computing, the rapid proliferation of connected mobile devices, the growing consumption of video and the burgeoning Internet of things (IoT), is increasing the demands placed on enterprise networks while tech vendors are increasing their efforts to bring optical LANs into the data center.

Optical LANS Starting to Move From Cloud Giants to Data Centers

Tellabs is one of those vendors making the push, saying that the same benefits that carriers and companies like Google see from optical networking can also work for other organizations.

"What if we took a product that offers very high speed … and made it an enterprise product?" Tom Ruvarac, director of product management at Tellabs, told eWEEK. Ruvarac noted that when Sandia National Laboratories replaced 600 traditional switches with 14 Tellabs optical terminals, the agency saw a 70 percent improvement in total cost of ownership, 80 percent power reduction and 90 percent space savings. Such benefits could be attractive to any organization, he said.

A year ago, a group within the IEEE organization was unable to come up with a standard for 100 gigabits-per-second optical networks, spurring a the rise of new efforts among vendor-driven organizations. Earlier this month, Intel and Arista Networks launched the 100G CLR4 Alliance, a consortium that also includes such vendors as Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Brocade, Oracle and eBay.

The consortium is working to develop a standard of 100G bps optical links for data center switches that can support distances of up to 2 kilometers and address the need to more quickly and efficiently manage and move data around and between data centers.

The 100G CLR4 Alliance wants to address the underserved middle area between the current 10G and 40G networking products currently in the data center and then 100G system currently on the market that are focused on telecoms and are too costly for most data centers.

"Data centers are becoming massive in scale, requiring longer and longer reaches for connectivity," Mario Paniccia, an Intel Fellow and general manager of Intel's photonics research at Intel Labs, said in a post on the chip maker's blog. "This leaves an enormous opportunity to bring high-speed, low-power, optical links that can span up to 2 kilometers in modern data centers operating at data rates up to 100G bps. That's more than 20 football fields.

"Yes, there are telecom-centric optical transceivers today operating at 100G bps, but their power, size and costs are non-starters for the new data center. Thus, there is a huge gap that needs to be filled for reaches that span from, say, 100m to 2km. And that's the problem we are trying to address here."

Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder, chairman and chief development officer at Arista, said during a press conference that the failed effort by the IEEE group has increased the urgency to come out with a standard, given the increasing pressure data center networks are under.

"There is an explosion of [network] traffic, and most of the traffic is confined in the data center," Bechtolsheim said. "The key thing is that we cannot wait another nine months for a specification to come to fruition. We need those optics now. We really can't wait. … We are simply out of time to fuss around."

The Intel-Arista-led consortium is not the only effort underway. The day before the 100G CLR4 Alliance was announced, the CWDM4 MSA Group—created by such vendors as Avago Technologies, Finisar, JDSU and Oclaro—was announced.

Optical LANS Starting to Move From Cloud Giants to Data Centers

In March, Intel and partners Corning, Molex, Tyco Electroncis and U.S. Conec announced a plan to begin rolling out new optical cables in the second half of 2014 that will leverage Intel's new MXC connector technology and bring speeds of up to 800G bps to the data center.

Also in March, Vello Systems announced the formation of the Open Source Optical (OSO) Forum, a group with such charter members as Accelink, Packetlight, Coadna and Pacnet that will promote the adoption of open-source optical networking solutions in the data center and cloud environments.

The same day, Mellanox Technologies and startup Ranovus introduced a new consortium—the OpenOptics MSA (multi-source agreement)—whose aim is to create a 100G Wavelength Division Multiplexing (WDM) for that will offer a 2km reach for large cloud data centers.

Last year, IBM, Tellabs, Corning, 3M and others launched the Association for Passive Optical LAN (APOLAN) to advocate for the optical LAN market and technologies. The 20-member group's role is that of an information clearing house and education resource around passive optical LANs, rather than as a standards body, Jeffrey Jones, director of global technology services alliances at IBM and a director on the APOLAN board, told eWEEK.

There also have been a range of field trials carried out by vendors, such as the test run earlier this year by the Ontario Research and Innovation Optical Network (ORION) and Alcatel-Lucent on 400G optical transmission running between Toronto and York University's campus in North York.

So there is industry momentum behind the idea of fiber optics in the data center, but it's unclear when glass will become widespread and overtake copper, according to vendors and analysts. The benefits of optical LANs can best be seen when a building is just going up. The elimination of wiring closets, various electronics, and power and cooling infrastructures, as well as less cabling and reduced space requirements, can offer significant capital expense and construction cost reductions.

"In a greenfield environment, it makes the most sense," Mark Fabbi, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner, told eWEEK.

As with the Santa Fe school example, in a brownfield situation—where plans are in place for significant upgrades or changes—fiber optics also becomes a more viable option. The Santa Fe project "is both a greenfield and a brownfield," said Al Curtis, executive account director for Tellabs, who work with school officials on the deployment.

However, in the typical enterprise data center, it may take a while for an enterprise to embrace the idea of an optical LAN. The speed of Ethernet continues to rise—just as it has gone from 1Gb to 10Gb and now 40Gb, work is underway for 100Gb and even 400Gb—and many data centers are just making the move to 10GbE, with many fewer getting to 40GbE. For many enterprises, Ethernet gives them all the speed they need, according to analysts and vendors.

"For a lot of companies, they're just now seeing 10 gigabits," IDC analyst Brad Casemore told eWEEK.

IBM's Jones agreed, saying that "if the speed is adequate today, I'm not sure there's a business sense to" jump into optical networking.

Optical LANS Starting to Move From Cloud Giants to Data Centers

However, eventually, the benefits and business reasons behind optical LANs will convince many companies to make the change, Jones said, suggesting that enterprises now should start running pilot programs to get an idea of what an optical network entails.

Casemore said what the industry is seeing now is "a little bit of separation" between large Web 2.0 companies and telecoms and enterprises in what they need in their networks. Where many enterprises currently get what they need from Ethernet, the others are always looking for more speed and more capacity from technologies that can also save them money. It's an indication of how differently these organizations look at their data centers. For many enterprises, their IT resources help them get business done.

"For these companies [like Google and Facebook], it's how they earn their money," Casemore said. "It's what they do. … IT becomes a competitive advantage."

"Big hyperscale customers have a slightly different view of technology," Gartner's Fabbi said. "IT is their business, so they will expend a bigger effort to optimize their infrastructure."

The trend for optical LAN is up. Analysts at market research firm Dell'Oro Group expect revenues in the optical transport equipment market to hit $15 billion by 2018. While hyperscale and telecom environments may drive much of that, vendors are seeing some movement by enterprises and other organizations. In November 2013, the San Diego, Calif., Library System opened a new nine-story building that included an optical LAN infrastructure from Tellabs.

"We want a library of the future that is flexible, built for now and built for the future," San Diego Library Director Deborah Barrow said in a statement at the time of the building's opening. "One of the early technology decisions we made was optical LAN, a future-proof backbone to allow the library to expand as future changes occur. In a public building, the flexibility, the cost and the energy savings all need to be considered, and that’s what we’ve done here."

Barrow's comments echo many of the points made by Bernardino at the Santa Fe public schools. The optical LAN technology in place creates what he called a "ripple effect" of benefits that the school district will reap going into the future, from the centralized management to the impact on the buildings themselves. When laying out plans for a new school, the ability to eliminate the wiring closets, HVAC systems and various electronics, as well as being able to shrink the space the cabling needs, opens up enough space for another classroom, he said.

The flexibility also is key. If a new teacher comes into a classroom, moving things around will mean just having to deal with a fiber optics cable rather than large amounts of bulky copper wire, Bernardino said. Students, administrators and faculty will have more network speed and capacity to do their work—"it allows us to be power users of the network," he said—and upgrades in the future will be less expensive and easier.

Given all that, the choice on an optical LAN deployment was easy, he said.

"Everything will be on the [fiber optics] system," Bernardino said. "That's the standard going forward."

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