MEMS Put to Test Bed
Subsystems vendor Continuum Photonics Inc. is announcing products today after more than three years of secrecy, but the company isn't banking on an all-optical revival. Its opening move is a switch aimed at the test market.
Based on micro-electro-mechanical system (MEMS), Continuum's DirectLight IG is an optical switch that would sit between test equipment and the devices being tested (line cards, for instance). The switch's programmable nature means engineers could build arbitrary topologies in the lab without rewiring all the equipment being tested. Networks arranged in a ring, for instance, could be converted to a mesh via software, saving time.
Test-equipment vendors are aware of this concept, but it appears Continuum won't face much competition yet. EXFO Electro-Optical Engineering Inc. (Nasdaq: EXFO; Toronto: EXF) was developing its own product based on an all-optical switch, but the project was postponed because the market hadn't yet developed for such a device, officials say.
All-optical switches haven't been used in this space before because they lack the necessary precision, says Aaron Bent, Continuum's vice president of marketing. Test equipment requires switches with near-perfect repeatability, making the market the domain of mechanical steppers sold by DiCon Fiberoptics Inc. and JDS Uniphase Corp. (Nasdaq: JDSU; Toronto: JDU).
Continuum claims it's got the precision and repeatability thanks to its chosen technology. Most MEMS switches use electrostatic or electromagnetic forces to move tiny mirrors, applying a voltage across an air gap. Continuum alters the direction of a beam using a combination of MEMS and piezoelectric forces, "pushing with a material that has the stiffness of aluminum," Bent says. Piezoelectric technology was used by Astarte Fiber Networks, the all-optical switch acquired by Tellium in 2000 (see Tellium's Pure Optical Play).
The piezoelectric method gives Continuum a level of precision usable in test circles, but the company didn't discover this until recently. "We realized about a year ago that we had performance specs that were unique," Bent says.
Another MEMS vendor moving into test applications is Integrated Micromachines Inc. (IMI), one of the startups that preached 1,000-port crossconnects during the bubble. IMI has shifted into the semiconductor probe-card market, the business it had investigated before diving into telecom (see IMMI Switches Strategy).
Unlike IMI, Continuum is still pursuing the telecom market. At Supercomm in June, the company plans to announce DirectLight TL for that market, followed at the end of the year by DirectLight FD, for an application Bent calls fiber distribution.
Systems using the TL probably wouldn't emerge until 2005, Bent says. Along the way, Continuum will have to battle fellow all-optical survivors including Calient Networks Inc., Corvis Corp. (Nasdaq: CORV), Glimmerglass Networks, Lynx Photonic Networks, Movaz Networks Inc., and Polatis Ltd..
DirectLight IG is available in sizes from 16 ports to 64 ports.
— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading