The world of submarine cable systems has been evolving quite rapidly in recent years. With new cables coming online and big content increasingly driving things, equipment providers are shifting to meet new requirements and keep up with the pace of bandwidth demand. With us today to give his perspective on the subject is Anthony McLachlan, VP & GM Asia Pacific at Ciena. Anthony came to Ciena via Nortel, and looks after the company’s global submarine business as well as the APAC region.
TR: What has been the biggest technology driver over the last decade or so in the submarine cable business?
AM: I would say coherent modems were a bit of a game changer, because it was a nice first foray into driving a form of openness in subsea cables. It had typically been an original vendor provider who both built the wet plant and then also the custom transport stuff for you in the network. Coherent networks allowed us to open these things up, embracing different sorts of capacities on the cable and having a meaningful effect on how capacity is consumed across the network.
TR: What do you see as the next drivers of technological change in the submarine cable business?
AM: We’re getting into this highly connected world, and so we're going to need lots more connectivity: new cables, different types of cables, and plenty of innovation to help open them up and get at the bandwidth. We were at 2.5G then 10G then 40G then 100G and now in some cases 200G. Are we going to continue to mine the spectrum for the best performance? We've done it on existing cables, and as new cables come out, we can put more capacity on those. But it will be a combination of spectral efficiency and lowering the cost of bandwidth carried. I think we're also going to see a blurring of terrestrial and submarine. In both cases, it's going to start to be about how you connect all these things together to build more resilient networks, and how you drive a lot more software automation and control into the networks. Just look at our customers, and their customers, and the webscale guys and how they consume bandwidth. It's not a surprise you will see that in submarine, because it's where we see the direction going in terrestrial. Sure, it's still going under the water, but we're all going toward this datacenter-to-datacenter model. There's no reason the submarine industry needs to be a laggard in that space. I see a lot of work being done in the software end of town.
TR: What do you mean by moving toward a data center-to-data center model for submarine networks?
AM: In terrestrial networks we have long talked about datacenter-to-datacenter or datacenter-to-user, but in submarine we started out being beach-to-beach and then PoP-to-PoP. But it's data center-to-data center that we are heading toward now. I think it's fairly ubiquitous that it should be about seamless networks and resilience.
TR: Where do you see software playing a bigger role?
AM: When you get into the software piece, there are lots of opportunities: automation of provisioning services to restoration service, the mining of data for analytics, and the prediction of traffic flows and network performance. From an underlying technology perspective, a lot of the toolsets are available but a lot of the software is not yet. I think it will all enable a more resilient network and take out a lot of the costs in the process. Additionally, some of the techniques we use in terrestrial packet networking to get more bandwidth and subscription services in there are coming into submarine. There should be a range of client interfaces and flexibility, leveraging all the subscription side of packet networking where you can oversubscribe and get at unused bandwidth in a predictive, deterministic way. I think we'll be able to create a whole range of new operational and commercial options.
TR: How will Ciena’s approach differ between the submarine and terrestrial technologies going forward?
AM: They are very much alike. Our software engines are coming through Blue Planet and will be on the same platform. There is of course some secret sauce that we put in for submarine to make sure we can do greater distances and get the best efficiency out of the transponders and DSPs and modulation schemes that we use. There will also be some applications unique to submarine, but from a general family of how we open up the interfaces and APIs, it will be the same, and reasonably seamless for our customers. I do think the application of open networks and that whole competitive environment is a healthy thing. Open networking allows our customers to be in control and have a choice around best-of-breed options, and Ciena is a big advocate for that. We don't provide wet plant, for instance, and we don't foresee changing that. We are conditioned to work over the top of whatever wet plant provider may be there.
TR: How has the rise of big content players operating global networks affected the direction of Ciena’s product set?
AM: The webscale or hyperscale guys are very big consumers of bandwidth and they have a consumption-based view of network bandwidth, moving workloads back and forth. They have probably become, by no stretch of the imagination, the biggest consumer of it, and they are changing how the consortium structure of cables are built—and are building some of their own cables as well. Their networking requirements aren't always the same as some of the classic telecoms requirements, but are rather more simple sometimes. They may in some cases just want Ethernet, in others they still want OTN, but at the core it is around how to improve spectral efficiency and deliver the lowest cost per bit carried. They are asking a lot of probing questions around performance and how we build products. Ciena has gone to market with a product tailored to webscale providers, Waveserver. It uses the same DSP WaveLogic technology, but in a different form factor so the webscale guys can consume it differently. So it is creeping into how we build networks, but the way we are approaching is that the fundamental building blocks around our WaveLogic DSP and all the goodness that sits there will be carried through, and it's really the packaging and presentation that may change depending on the customer type and needs.
TR: What’s on deck for Ciena technology-wise in submarine cable systems?
AM: Continued focus on how we drive scale and performance, mining the spectrum to drive more bandwidth across, a lot of new techniques coming to market, more choice around modulation types, software automation, and more controls in the hands of customers. We'll look at other techniques around C and L band to ensure that we are adaptive to what the market needs there. We'll do this both for existing cables and the new cable markets.
TR: What’s the biggest challenge or hurdle you see ahead of the industry?
AM: With the webscale players, the dynamics of the industry compared to the past is that there is a continued strong appetite for the foreseeable future on bandwidth. The challenge for us as an industry is to be able to ensure we can meet those demands in a timely fashion. That will cause new cables to be built, but it will also be about how we adapt and continue to use the cables we already have to the best return for customers. That means finding ways to reduce costs in the network and looking at new techniques and ways of doing business.
TR: How close are the physical limits on bandwidth in fiber really?
AM: Everyone talks about these limits, but I look at it like an Olympic race. I’m always surprised every Olympics, when there’s another unbreakable record broken. You think “how fast can these guys go?” You are always surprised to see the continued innovation pushing the envelope every year. Sure there’s a degree of physics there, but I think the techniques are still going to be looked at. Progress will come from a combination of several different things: cable design and capability, electronics, modulation schemes, and how all these things gel together. I think it’s about how you mine the spectrum. For example, we’ve introduced flexible grid, optimizing the amount of bandwidth across the spectrum and getting more efficiency. Ciena will continue to work at how we can extract bandwidth out of a network over and above individual links. As a collective, there’s an opportunity to extract more bandwidth by knowing where the traffic is used.
TR: Thank you for talking with Telecom Ramblings!