Guest Column: The future of software-defined optical networks

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

By Hector Silva, CTO, CALA, Ciena

Optical networks today are largely deployed as rigid, static networks. Although a lot of advancements have been made to enable dynamic optical behavior, the end-of-life capacity of the network is still designed with a "one size fits all" mentality, where the "one size" is engineered against best-guess predictions of worst case conditions. In the constantly evolving and on-demand world we live in today, this mode of operation is no longer sustainable.

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This mentality creates significant inefficiencies and capital waste in optical networks due to the likelihood of underutilized equipment and rarely used capacity. But if an operator underestimates demand they risk not being able to accommodate traffic spikes, which could result in lengthy and complex unplanned deployments.

To date, operators in Latin America have been constrained to this mode of operation because they lack real-time data from the network, the right analytics and software tools, and the visibility they need to do things differently. They need to implement a "set and forget" type of approach because it is just too manually intensive and complex to make changes to deployed wavelengths throughout the life of the network.

We are now entering a new world with the introduction of software-defined platforms that allow networks to predict and address connectivity and capacity challenges as they emerge. These platforms change the way optical networks are engineered, operated, and monetized. They mine and use available system margin – a changing variable over the life of the network – to gain optical capacity on-demand, improve reach for a specific channel, or increase service availability.

The autonomous network: A completed puzzle years in the making

Even though this type of platform has not emerged until now, the concept of a programmable and software-defined optical network is one that has been in the works for several years. In fact, many of the major product and technology innovations we have seen over the last few years have been puzzle pieces within these broader solutions.

These various elements can be grouped into two general categories: programmable hardware and advanced software. The software removes the complexity associated with advanced flexible technologies and optical link engineering so that operators can operationalize next generation technologies and use their networks in a much more dynamic fashion.

All these factors combine to dramatically simplify how optical networks are designed, built, and operated - enabling systems that are both scalable to meet today's significant bandwidth demands, as well as open and programmable to deliver the exact service performance required at any point in time.

Consistency in an evolving region

These capabilities are now a requirement in today's constantly changing, on-demand world. It is impossible to predict the network impact of applications that have yet to be invented, or the billions of devices that have yet to be connected in our region.

We also cannot fully envisage the traffic patterns arising from either augmented and virtual reality applications or the full implications of the evolution to 5G. But what is certain in today's networks is that bandwidth demand at any location is dynamic and fluid, and will change as new end-user devices and applications enter the market.

Another crucial factor in our region is the different levels of development of fiber plants where gradual modernization of different types of fiber, constant repairs after fiber cuts and very challenging physical conditions present another dimension where programmable hardware and advanced software give the operators a leading edge to maximize resources based on their unique network conditions.

Latin America is experiencing rapid growth in connectivity and the network needs to be able to not only scale for massive capacity growth, but also to be more agile and programmable to handle the increasingly unpredictable nature of traffic requirements. Operators must enhance their infrastructure and move towards autonomous networks, without adding costs and it appears that we are finally starting to see this puzzle take form.

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