Equinix is widely known as a data center operator that relies on the availability of high-speed fiber connections, but the company is now looking to a range of emerging wireless technologies to bolster its portfolio of interconnection services, starting with a "free space optics" solution provided by a company called Laser Light Communications.
Originally developed by the military, free space optics relies on the same laser and optical technology used in fiber networks. Instead of traveling along a fiber strand, however, the laser is shot from satellites in medium-earth orbit (that's at an altitude of between 1,200 and 22,000 miles). Equinix Inc. (Nasdaq: EQIX) reckons free space optics is capable of connecting any two points on the globe with service links of 100 Gbit/s.
Along with other high-speed wireless technologies, free space optics could hold plenty of appeal as a connectivity option in areas that are hard to reach with fixed-line networks. According to Ihab Tarazi, Equinix's chief technology officer, a typical customer might be a mining company using heavily automated and remotely controlled equipment. "It's really hard to get capacity to those mines today," he tells Light Reading.
Ultimately, Equinix wants free space optics to feature as another tool in its bundle of interconnection services. Investments in SDN should allow customers to use the technology "dynamically," says Tarazi, based on coverage, latency and cost requirements. "We're also looking to integrate this with our cloud edge to make the platform more agile for IoT [the Internet of Things]," he says. "Collecting data from sensors all over the world will be an option using this technology."
The programmability that comes with SDN is one of several developments that have recently buoyed free space optics, according to Tarazi. By deploying in medium earth orbit, Laser Light can boost capacity and coverage without needing as many satellites as it would at a higher altitude (so-called geosynchronous orbit), he says. Improvements in coding and compression techniques also appear to be helping.
However, it is early days. According to a press statement, Laser Light is set to deploy an inaugural point of presence (PoP) at Equinix's data center in the Washington, D.C. area. The expectation is that other PoPs will follow at Equinix facilities in the UK, Japan, Brazil, Australia, the Middle East and Europe. But Tarazi acknowledges that a detailed roadmap is not yet in place. "The first node is more about having a central location and where they will put the NOC [network operations center]," he says.
Various technical challenges still need to be overcome, including optimizing the signal-to-noise ratio, and there is some commercial uncertainty, too. Laser Light is marketing its connectivity offering as an optical-satellite-as-a-service deal, under the SpaceCable brand, which fits neatly with the SDN-based, on-demand vision of Equinix. But it is not yet clear how price-competitive free space optics will be.
Nevertheless, Equinix evidently believes the technology will be far more economical for certain types of customer than existing solutions. "When a traditional terrestrial option like fiber is made available to a mine, the pricing tends to be very expensive," says Tarazi. "A lot of customers are looking for speed and flexibility and lower cost."
As with other technologies, the development of an open ecosystem could help to bring those costs down even more, and Tarazi says that standards are gradually taking shape. "You'll probably see us get behind a couple of standards to foster the ecosystem, but we're not ready to talk about that in more detail just yet," he says.
When it comes to standardization efforts, Laser Light is also taking an active interest in the interoperability of networks that are heavily based on software and virtualization technologies. The company is one of a growing number of service providers -- including giants such as Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), Orange Business Services and Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) -- that have joined The New IP Agency , which has been carrying out interoperability tests on equipment from a variety of suppliers.
So how big a role could free space optics play in Equinix's plans? "I want to stay away from sizing it," says Tarazi. "We wanted to expose this technology but we still have to figure out details of pricing, latency and so on -- all of that will have an impact on how big it is."
What is certain is that wireless technologies are being taken far more seriously by the data center player. Besides teaming up with Laser Light, Equinix also appears to have a keen eye on millimeter wave technology, which uses spectrum between the 30GHz and 300GHz bands. "That is something we're exploring and working on closely with the big players and we'll announce more details on that last-mile wireless technology in the future," says Tarazi.
— Iain Morris, , News Editor, Light Reading