The future of fiber optic innovation: Part I

Fiber optic communications systems have resulted in one of the greatest transformations in the history of mankind. The ability to communicate across the globe seamlessly, pervasively and economically has transformed our societies more so than any other technological advancement. Over the past decades, we have moved from phone calls to video, machine learning, remote medicine, and automation and control systems. All these depend on fiber optic communication systems coupled with data center environments. To be clear – there is no technology alternative that we know of today that can replace the staggering data capacity and global reach that optical fiber delivers.

To think about where communications will take us, we need to think about society's greatest challenges. In the coming decades, society will go through a transformation of the workplace, a reinvention of the classroom, and the redefinition of our cities. A focus will be placed on eliminating multi-generational poverty, the conversion of our energy and transportation systems, and the uniform availability of data for the optimization of human endeavors. In response to many of these challenges, communication technologies have started to reinvent our financial systems, our governments, and the definition of our national borders, while access to information will continue to become even more ubiquitous. In the coming decades, fiber optic technologies will follow this path as high-performance communications become even more vital in our lives. 

The scale of bandwidth growth and the ongoing reduction in its cost enables a continuing drive toward data centers that are either optimized for low-latency applications or centralized for high-power computing and efficient caching of information. Although information will continue to be valued and shared, we will enter into a new era where it is the analysis and management of that data that changes our lives. The use of machine learning and artificial intelligence control systems will augment human analysis of medical data, enable the understanding of local and global environmental issues, and automate tasks that support a greater understanding of our endeavors.

Optical communication technologies will continue to be based on the intrinsic synergy between fiber and semiconductors because together these elements enable cost-effective bandwidth on a truly massive scale.

As a way to deal with that scale at the edge of the network, we will see a growing trend toward optical aggregation rather than electrical aggregation, because only optical aggregation can deliver ongoing reductions in cost and power consumption per bit.

The existing trend toward the virtualization of switching and routing will continue and enable a simplification of network architectures, driven by the move toward appliance-based building blocks. Interface standards between elements that are functionally optimized will continue to evolve and enable more open optical technology. Those technologies will become deployed in a bandwidth-on-demand and software-reconfigurable architecture such that edge elements will rarely need to be upgraded. Provisioning will move from centralized to locally enabled in a highly responsive set of protocols that facilitate rapid re-provisioning of bandwidth and a byte-based economic consumption model. Bandwidth will become a utility, just as electricity is today.

Technological innovation will focus on devices and architectures that enable an overall power reduction of the network and a simplification of the connectivity from the user to the latency-sensitive and latency-tolerant data/compute centers in the network. Provisioning will require ever-greater security of information and validation of its integrity. Time will tell whether this will be achieved by the integration of optics into the electronics or if we will move to a radical simplification of the electronics and rely on optical processing for the simplification and power reduction of networks.   

The past decades have shown that there is a predictable underlying trend for ever-increasing bandwidth, with an associated increase in the utility of that bandwidth to society's needs. Overlaid on this predictability we see a series of unpredictable technological and architectural breakthroughs that inevitably depend on the availability of cheap, plentiful bandwidth. The technologies of the past have already enabled an unbelievable degree of change in the world, and I expect nothing less in the next 50 years as data networks continue to revolutionize how society understands and solves its problems.

— Dr. Dave Welch, Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Infinera

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