AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core
The optical core hasn't seen much dramatic change for nearly a decade, but the convergence of packet and optical networks -- along with the expected flood of Internet video traffic -- is giving equipment vendors the motivation to revamp the core.
AlcaLu presaged the 1870 Transport Tera Switch, as it's called, in September, when it announced its plan for "converged backbone transformation" and what it calls "high-leverage networks" -- ideas that hinge on mixing packet and optical capabilities into one box. (See AlcaLu Preps Grand Convergence Plan and AlcaLu Makes Its Packet-Optical Move .) (And here we thought they were just making up new terms for fun.)
Alcatel-Lucent particularly likes this plan because, unlike many of its competitors, it's got deep expertise on both the optical side and the packet side. "Given the level of integration and the complexity of the systems, this is a place where we have a competitive advantage," says Alberto Valsecchi, vice president of marketing.
The core network has already seen some next-generation boxes, including: The Ciena Corp. (NYSE: CIEN) 5400 family; the Z77 from startup Cyan Optics Inc. ; the Fujitsu Network Communications Inc. Flashwave 9500; and the Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. OSN 8800 (which so far lacks packet capabilities but has a next-generation kind of capacity). (See Ciena Catches Packet/Optical Convergence Bug, Cyan Plays God With Optical, and Huawei Intros Big Crossconnect .)
But the 1870 is arguably the closest box yet to a truly next-generation packet/optical core switch. "They're at the front of the whole, for lack of a better term, God Box that combines the Layer 2 and some of the Layer 0 functionality," says analyst Andrew Schmitt of Infonetics Research Inc.
The 1870 certainly has the feel of a God box. It handles Ethernet, Sonet/SDH, and the Optical Transport Network (OTN) all within one fabric, a chip Alcatel-Lucent has worked on for years. It's also got grooming capabilities down to the ODU0 level -- OTN's equivalent of a Gigabit Ethernet channel. And it can be outfitted with reconfigurable optical add/drop multiplexer (ROADM) cards.
It also happens to be just plain big, with capacity of 4 Tbit/s going into card slots that can handle 120 Gbit/s each. (An upgrade to the box will double both those numbers later, AlcaLu says.)
If only it had DWDM capabilities, the 1870 would truly match the Heavy Reading definition of a core packet-optical transport system (P-OTS). (See Redefining P-OTS.)
"In the camp of packet/optical, AlcaLu's got really good solutions," Schmitt says. "They were working on that since I was at Vitesse Semiconductor Corp. (Nasdaq: VTSS) back in 2003. They've got a huge investment in that platform that no one can just show up and replicate."
What makes this kind of box important is that it fits some carriers' visions for the future network. Most big carriers want to see the network's packet and optical sides merge, so that they're controlled by the same boxes and the same management systems.
This would simplify the network. In some scenarios, it would also save money by replacing expensive core-router ports with optical transport. That's the plan Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) is chasing, having issued a request for proposals around a converged P-OTS. (See Verizon Rethinks Long Haul.)
The 1870 seems to fit the requirements, and AlcaLu officials describe the system in Verizon-friendly terms. Specifically, the 1870 is able to switch traffic at the lowest possible layer of the network. That way, traffic that's just passing through a node can be switched optically, without having to be terminated -- avoiding the need for those pesky core-router ports.
What's interesting is that AlcaLu isn't putting all its eggs in a Verizon-like basket. The company has also worked on IP-over-DWDM, a technology that puts optical capabilities onto the router (as opposed to adding packet smarts to optical switches). Not surprisingly, that approach is being pushed hardest by the router vendors -- Juniper Networks Inc. (NYSE: JNPR), in partnership with Nokia Siemens, and, of course, Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO).
"The bigger vendors are hedging. You see the same thing with Nokia Siemens," says Heavy Reading analyst Sterling Perrin.
That's wise, because each camp is likely to draw support from some major carriers. The eventual outcome will likely be a spectrum of deployments that include shades of gray between the two approaches, Perrin says.
That's why these systems are all likely to end up looking like God boxes. But God boxes were built on the assumption that carriers would use all of those features -- specifically, that they'd be switching every type of traffic through these boxes -- and, in that regard, God is dead.
"I don't think anybody wants to use everything these boxes do. The modular approach is going to be a big deal," Perrin says.
For example, while all the new core boxes will support OTN, many networks aren't likely to switch to OTN for years. That's why the 1870 and its ilk will continue to support carrier Ethernet and good old Sonet/SDH.
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading