• Technical Conference:  30 March – 03 April 2025
  • Exhibition: 01 – 03 April 2025
  • Moscone Center, San Francisco, California, USA

Enabling the Cloud Using Optics

By Casimer DeCusatis, Ph.D.

As the OFC conference gets into full swing, I decided to spend some time looking at the clouds.  Not the fluffy white ones outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, of course, but the symposium on enabling the cloud that attracts leading cloud, internet, and telecom service providers. It seems that everyone is interested in cloud computing, and most experts agree that the multi-billion dollar cloud market will continue its double digit growth rates throughout 2015. So it’s hardly a surprise that OFC attendees want to understand how to enable the cloud through optical networking and related technologies. 

At this symposium, experts gathered from Facebook, Microsoft, IBM (who purchased cloud computing provider SoftLayer over a year ago), and the Open Networking Foundation, the open source effort which gave us OpenFlow and other protocols. There’s a lot of innovation taking place in this market; for example, during the Executive Forum this morning, Microsoft had announced the formation of a new industry consortium to put optics on circuit boards as part of their cloud computing efforts.  There are several key trends driving cloud network operations and management, which need to be considered together as part of a larger picture if we want to truly enable cloud computing’s continued growth.  The three major trends in the cloud market are:

  • Software Defined Networking (SDN).  A year or two ago, SDN was considered an overhyped marketing fad by some analysts.  Today, SDN (or at least some aspects of it) is fast becoming an established trend in both data center and telecommunication network infrastructures. SDN architectures separate the network control and management functions from the data routing functions, and abstracts the management functions into a centralized network controller. Effectively, the network controller holds the routing tables for all switches in the network. This makes the network programmable, with end-to-end routing becoming visible in ways that simply were not possible using conventional hop-by-hop routing. The control plane and application programming interfaces (APIs) which manage the physical infrastructure continue to be the subject of some debate, with the open industry standard OpenFlow protocols competing with various vendor-specific options.
  • Network Function Virtualization (NFV).  The idea of replacing physical devices with virtual ones (emulated using software on commodity servers) it not new, but it is starting to catch on as many vendors find this a cost effective alternative to purpose-build network appliances. It’s gradually becoming apparent that many common load balancing, firewall, intrusion detection/prevention, and other functions can be implemented with reasonably good performance on commodity hardware. While there will always be high performance applications that demand better performance, NFV addresses a large market segment for whom cost is the major market driver. NFV also allows administrators to bring up new instances of network appliances in just a few minutes, much the same way that server and storage virtualization do today, making this an attractive option for dynamic applications.
  • Programmable Network Technologies.  Although this one lacks a catchy acronym (PNT just doesn’t have the same ring to it), the use of pluggable photonics hardware that allows users to quickly synthesize their own platforms is growing in popularity. It’s felt that these components will provide a framework for hosting network functions at the transport layer.  Combined with SDN and NFV, this creates a very unique and potentially compelling solution for full programmability of optical transport networks. Furthermore, optical packet transport devices might one day host NFV appliances (such as firewalls integrated with wavelength multiplexers), all under the management of a centralized SDN controller.  Network functions could be provisioned, modified, and deleted in a matter of minutes from an automated centralized controller, perhaps responding to a software policy for security or quality of service.
Taken together, these three trends are poised to reshape our viewpoint of networks within and between data centers, clouds, and telecommunication fabrics.  This symposium attempted to shed light on these issues (no pun intended), while also discussing solutions for extending SDN and NFV frameworks. There was considerable discussion on the role of single-mode vs multimode fiber in cloud data centers, and the long term sustainability of emerging industry standards at 25G, 50G< 100G, and beyond. Some large cloud providers acknowledge that a combination of coherent wavelength tunable optics integrated with data center routers and high quality fiber is pushing many links close to the theoretical Shannon Limit.  Despite this, it’s clear that much remains to be done on energy efficient, low cost optical transceiver form factors, advanced cable options (including low cost single-mode and advanced reach multimode). 

Are you using optics in the cloud today?  Drop me a line on Twitter (@Dr_Casimer) #OFC2015 and let me know, or maybe we can schedule some time to chat in person while I’m at the conference.  Hope to hear from you soon!

Posted: 24 March 2015 by Casimer DeCusatis, Ph.D. | with 0 comments

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The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition (OFC)  or its sponsors.