Optical Encryption's Value Shouldn't Be a Secret

Encryption is not new to the telecom industry; however, encrypting at Layer 1, the lowest optical layer, is new and is causing a stir between those who feel it may interfere with public safety issues and those who feel it offers solutions for encryption issues.

Dan O'Shea, Analyst, Heavyreading.com

December 21, 2015

3 Min Read
Optical Encryption's Value Shouldn't Be a Secret

Someone once said networking is not just speeds and feeds: OK, a lot of people have said that. This phrase has been deployed in many different contexts, but it is often meant to convey that great value -- perhaps difference-making value -- can be found among the details, the product features that at first glance don't always influence buying decisions. Maybe they should.

Heading into 2016, the optical transport sector will be talking a lot about some of the following topics: evolution beyond 100G, metro aggregation schemes, data center interconnection and programmability. But encryption, specifically the capability of a given platform to support encryption of traffic at optical Layer 1, is another topic that should receive increasing attention.

Even as network security in general has become a hot topic in the past few years, we haven't heard so much about encryption in optical networks, although it is one of the most useful tools in the security toolbox. (Recent terrorist attacks have shed a controversial light on encryption technology in general, and elevated its profile, but more about that in a moment.)

Encryption is a well-established technology at upper layers of the OSI model (IP Sec encryption being used at Layer 3, for example). However, to date, it has not been commonly used at Layer 1, specifically in transport networks. But, as I found when researching the new Heavy Reading report, "The Lower the Better: Encrypting the Optical Layer," there is a growing market need for it, and clear practical benefits that can be realized by encrypting traffic at Layer 1. Yet, the market has barely begun to take advantage of these benefits.

This should change dramatically in 2016, thanks to the early work that has been done by a very short list of vendors that, amid all the talk of speeds and feeds, have aggressively marketed the encryption capabilities in their transport platforms; they have also done much of the heavy lifting educating about the benefits, with most of their work coming in the past 18 months. For other vendors, Layer 1 encryption support remains a work in progress, one that many of them are not quite ready to discuss (a few vendors I sought input from for the report declined to participate). But, in the coming year, that should also change as we see the short list of suppliers now supporting Layer 1 encryption grow quickly into a much longer list.

Getting back to the controversy: If there is anything that could prove to be a drag on this burgeoning market, it's the possibility that after recent terror attacks the industry is forced to seriously consider the reactionary call for encryption back doors -- capabilities that would allow governments or others to access otherwise encrypted communications. Regardless of how you feel about that, a lingering debate about it could confuse the market.

— Dan O'Shea, Analyst, Heavy Reading

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About the Author(s)

Dan O'Shea

Analyst, Heavyreading.com

You want Dans? We got 'em! This one, "Fancy" Dan O'Shea, has been covering the telecom industry for 20 years, writing about virtually every technology segment and winning several ASBPE awards in the process. He previously served as editor-in-chief of Telephony magazine, and was the founding editor of FierceTelecom. Grrrr! Most recently, this sleep-deprived father of two young children has been a Chicago-based freelance writer, and continues to pontificate on non-telecom topics such as fantasy sports, craft beer, baseball and other subjects that pay very little but go down well at parties. In his spare time he claims to be reading Ulysses (yeah, right), owns fantasy sports teams that almost never win, and indulges in some fieldwork with those craft beers. So basically, it's time to boost those bar budgets, folks!

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