Seeing the Future in Optical

Smaller equipment vendors pursue next-generation networking strategy

While major telecommunications infrastructure companies hit by the general spending slowdown are refocusing on tried-and-true technologies, smaller vendors are pressing ahead with next-generation networking, particularly optical communications.

Optical switches remain expensive—costing up to $1 million each—and most industry observers argue that "pure" optical switching is neither available nor practical today. But, increasingly, optical components are making their way into metropolitan area networks and long-haul transport as standardization in wave division multiplexing becomes a reality.

Most switches categorized as optical today still encompass electrical switching at the core. "Theres a lot of functionality you lose with optical at the core," said Andy McCormick, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc., in Boston. Although optics have advanced to the point of maximizing raw throughput, the technology is not useful for measuring traffic, McCormick said.

"The issue is, how do you apply the services like QOS [quality of service], like security," said Peter Alexander, vice president of enterprise marketing at Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif. "You generally want to be in the electrical domain to manipulate the data stream and to analyze the data stream."

A study released last week by Aberdeen Group reports that market demand has shifted to next-generation technologies and that the smaller equipment vendors are best positioned to meet the demand. "Clearly the market is ready for these kinds of switches," McCormick said.

Legacy switch makers are not so sure, however. In April, Cisco took its ONS 15900 wavelength router off the shelf on the grounds that service providers are not ready to deploy products that require such extensive change in network architecture.

"In the short to medium term, the market does not need the capacity that the optical switches promise," Alexander said. "As the market matures, Cisco would likely participate in it and would likely do so through acquisitions."

According to Aberdeen Group, the optical networking industry is shaping into two broad categories: STS-1 switching, optimized for the edge of the network, where traffic varies, and STS-48 switching, optimized for large data traffic, including long-haul backbone networks.

Companies such as Ciena Corp., Sycamore Networks Inc. and TeraBurst Networks are leaders in the STS-1 camp, and Tellium Inc. and Altamar Networks lead the STS-48 camp, according to Aberdeen.

Future networking, according to many industry observers, will likely include combinations of pure optical switching and optical switching with electrical switching at the core. Tellium, in Oceanport, N.J., for one, is developing an all-optical switch that will enable carriers to support pure wavelength routing and circuit switching. Today, Tellium offers an optical-electrical- optical switch with core grooming.

TeraBurst is awaiting a patent on its wavelength-level switching systems, which are based on millimeter wave technology, rather than electrical mechanics, at the core. Altamar, meanwhile, is developing a scalable transport system for the long-distance optical network, capable of supporting more than 16,000 ports.