AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU) unveiled its next-generation optical crossconnect today, fueling what's looking to be a battle for future core-network designs that combine packet and optical functionality.

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

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chechaco 12/5/2012 | 4:44:25 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

I believe that for the real P-OTS, core or metro, just "handling Ethernet" is not good enough. What could it mean? Variety of Ethernet UNIs? Mapping Ethernet services onto SONET/SDH or ODUx tunnels? But that is not real Packet Transport. Smoke and Mirrors.

Stevery 12/5/2012 | 4:44:25 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

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,"

I confess:  I have no idea how you combine photon/electron level transport with something that involves a MAC address.  I would have said the traditional thing:  I use layer 0 (really layer 1) to implement my layer 2.

Clues welcomed.

Mark Sebastyn 12/5/2012 | 4:44:25 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

The system definitely supports DWDM. It does this through the use of pluggable XFP's. While this certainly can't match the performance of high-end 300-pin tunable based solutions, I'd say it does qualify it as DWDM capable.

jepovic 12/5/2012 | 4:44:24 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

Isn't one of the most obvious lessons learned from the history of telecom that god boxes suck?

And what's the point of almost being able to replace my level 2 network?

Let's hope the level 1 fucntionality kicks ass.

Sterling Perrin 12/5/2012 | 4:44:24 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core


The 1870 and the 1850 are both built with a universal/agnostic switching fabric that can do any mix of TDM switching and Ethernet/packet switching, so the abilities are definitely beyond Ethernet over SONET/SDH or over OTN. I agree that products that simply map Ethernet to TDM are not true packet-optical boxes.

Separately, on Andrew's point, my understanding is that the 1870 will be used initially with the 1830 to do DWDM transport, so, initially, the 1870 is a switch only.

It would be helpful if someone from ALU could chime in to clarify DWDM transport on the 1870. Any takers?


torivar 12/5/2012 | 4:44:24 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core <div>Is this a larger version of the TSS product from ALU? &nbsp;It seems to marry the same sets of technologies in a much higher capacity package. &nbsp;</div>
<div>It still needs to employ some sort of L2 or L3 circuit behavior using 802.1Qay or MPLS-TP/regular MPLS in order to statmux and keep the network from being just a big L2 switch...&nbsp;</div>
chechaco 12/5/2012 | 4:44:24 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

Glad we're in agreement. In regard to use of the agnostic fabric (it's actually packet fabric though very fast) I'd slightly modify "can do any mix" into "potentially can do any mix". I'm sceptical because of ability to support TDM services over the agnostic (packet) fabric in a scalable and cost effective way.


mvissers 12/5/2012 | 4:44:23 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

In todays packet core networks MPLS LSPs are used to connect service routers around the core with each other. Those LSPs provide virtual ports within the 10G, 40G and 100G physical interface ports.

With the ever growing bandwidth of these LSPs in the packet core networks it is becoming more efficient to migrate those LSPs to sub-Lambda Switched Paths (sLSPs). The 10G, 40G and 100G physical interface ports will then be equipped with sLSP based virtual ports.

The technology underlying those sLSPs is the ODUflex technology. These ODUflex connections start/end then in the service router. An example is described in http://www.huawei.com/broadban....

With the 40G and 100G physical interface modules for ethernet and OTN being the same devices, the change of virtual port technology does not change the principle architecture of the packet core from the viewpoint of the service router (LSPs are complemented and/or replaced by sLSPs, control plane is GMPLS). From the optical core perspective there is now no need to go to the packet level, keeping all processing on the layer 1 level.


sdmitriev 12/5/2012 | 4:44:23 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

Alcatel-Lucent has a White Paper: "Overcoming the cost-capacity crunch Implementing the intelligent Optical Transport Network (OTN) to face the "exaflood" phenomenon and support sustainable IP traffic growth", which describes the way 1870 will handle all different kinds of traffic. Take a look&nbsp; here.

photon2 12/5/2012 | 4:44:23 PM
re: AlcaLu Joins the War for the Optical Core

If the 1870 switches packets like the 1850 did, it will be a disaster.&nbsp; Hopes are they upgraded the switch fabric enough (not just the chip) to handle it.&nbsp; My sources tell me the 1850 fell over with only slight increases in packet traffic.&nbsp; Bet Verizon will put it to a hard test soon, and we'll all find out if this works or not....


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