Lessons from 25+ Years of Making the Internet Go Fast and Far

December 7th, 2017 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Steve Alexander, SVP and CTO of Ciena

November 2017 marked the 25th anniversary of Ciena’s founding. Back in 1992, the original business plan required time to flesh out, but by 1994 things really got rolling with the arrival of a seasoned engineering team and top-tier venture funding. By May of 1996 we had shipped our first products and then went public in 1997 with a record breaking IPO. In today’s lingo, we would have been known as one of the rare venture capital success stories referred to as a “Unicorn.” As one financial analyst put it at the time: “Ciena introduced Photonics to Wall Street.”

My personal interest in photonics started much earlier than all of this. I was always interested in radio communications, and as a teenager even tinkered with a basic Helium-Neon laser at a local school. To say that I was fascinated with being able to communicate with light would be an understatement! I earned engineering degrees and eventually found my way to MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where I helped develop Coherent Optical Communications technology that was intended for use in inter-satellite systems.

The Erbium Doped Fiber Amplifier (EDFA) was invented in the late 1980s and in the 1990s, DARPA funded a variety of projects related to photonic technologies. MIT, AT&T and Digital Equipment Corporation created a Pre-Competitive Consortium focused on All-Optical Networks. I was responsible for network test-bed development, which allowed us to study the architecture, network design and applications. The economic value proposition for combining DWDM with Erbium Doped Fiber Amplifiers (EDFAs) was extremely compelling. One single device, the EDFA, could do the same work as dozens of electrical regenerators if the systems were architected correctly. This held the promise to dramatically increase network capacity simultaneously with significant cost reduction.

In early 1994, I first heard about Ciena’s desire to commercialize DWDM. By the Fall of that year, I had relocated my family from Massachusetts to Maryland to join the fledgling company. So, the first chapter in my Ciena story features a company that was a single-technology shooting star responsible for commercializing Open-Architecture DWDM systems. These were specifically designed to interwork with existing SONET/SDH and even PDH equipment from different vendors. At the time, 16 channels on a single fiber was considered a lot of capacity and 500-700km a long distance. In fact, an executive at our first customer, Sprint, described the impact of open-DWDM systems as equivalent to finding a pot of gold sitting outside their offices.

The easy expansion of fiber capacity with DWDM, what we termed “virtual fiber,” became so popular that it wasn’t long before systems capable of more than 100 channels were in production. And since then, the innovation in fiber, optical, and capacity has seemingly never stopped.  But through all those years, there are a few consistent learnings:

Learning #1: If you make network capacity abundant, people will find ways to put it to good use. And by the way, that lesson holds true for computer memory, numbers of processor cores, and storage.

Once we learned how to create lots of capacity with DWDM, we started to write our second Chapter at Ciena. This involved making the capacity programmable, protected, and much more dynamic. With this goal in mind, we went down the path of adding scalable switches and a programmable distributed control plane to our product portfolio via the acquisition of Lightera in 1999. The resulting CoreDirector product line and its 5400 series descendants found their way into mission-critical networks all over the world because they allowed service providers to combine real-time network control with ultra-high-availability. It was this type of programmable switch fabric that was ultimately used in Saurav Das’ Stanford PhD Thesis in 2012 that helped start the ongoing revolution in Software Defined Networks.

Learning #2: Things that are open, dynamic, and programmable can be used to solve tough problems. Things that are static and difficult to change often cause them.

Ciena’s third Chapter paralleled, and also fueled, the continued expansion of the Internet and the success of the smart phone. We knew that the correct architecture for the future relied on the convergence of packets and optics. Smart, high-availability capacity is good, but making lots of capacity available in an easily consumable packet-optical format, all the way out to the network edge, is way better!

Further acquisitions followed. Internet Photonics and World Wide Packets gave us packet-native solutions at the network edge. And, ultimately, the acquisition of the Nortel Metro Ethernet Networks (MEN) business doubled our market presence and brought market-leading coherent optical innovations to Ciena. Channel rates of 100G, 200G and even 400G were developed and we could push system distances to 10,000km or more to interconnect the continents via submarine cables. The added intelligence from the Digital Signal Processing (DSP)-based chipsets like the WaveLogic family meant these systems were actually easier to utilize than the 10G per channel systems of just a few years prior.

Learning #3: Intelligence, done well, will effectively mask complexity and make complicated systems easy to use.

Today, we are working on the fourth Chapter of Ciena, using the lessons learned from our first 25 years combined with our constantly improving vision of the future. In this new chapter, it’s no longer sufficient to just focus on creating the circulatory system for the Internet. Even with the technologies we pioneered to make the Internet go fast and far, the massive amounts of capacity and connectivity needed to support the Internet of Things, along with Augmented and Virtual Reality applications, requires us to create an entirely new paradigm for architecting and operating networks.

Open architectures remain as critical as ever, but now, it’s not just the hardware systems that need to be open – it’s the software, the programming interfaces, the automation, and the network intelligence. Future networks need to be just as programmable as the Compute and Store functions we typically associate with cloud architectures. The network created in this Ciena chapter utilizes software and analytics to fuel machine learning, automation, and orchestration engines so that the network can support real-time on-demand services, latency-sensitive applications, topology adaptation, application assurance, and policy-based autonomous response to network data.

Ciena’s next 25 years will undoubtedly be just as exciting as the first. We will usher in a new era of programmable networking – with topology, capacity, reach, latency, efficiency, and cost policies defined by the network operator and executed by the network itself. For me? Even after 25 years it still captures my imagination. I can’t wait to see what we will do!

 Steve Alexander is currently Ciena’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. He has held a number of positions since joining the Company in 1994, including General Manager of Ciena’s Transport & Switching and Data Networking business units, Vice President of Transport Products and Director of Lightwave Systems. From 1982 until joining Ciena, he was employed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he last held the position of Assistant Leader of the Optical Communications Technology Group. He is an IEEE Fellow, was ranked by ExecRank.com at #1 in their listing of top CTOs for 2012/2013, and was the recipient of the IEEE Communications Society Industrial Innovation Award in 2012. He has been an Associate Editor for both the IEEE/OSA Journal of Optical Communications & Networking (JOCN) and for the Journal of Lightwave Technology (JLT). He has served as a commissioner in the TechAmerica Cloud First, Cloud Fast Initiative and as a member of the Federal Communications Commission Technological Advisory Council (TAC-4) and was a General Chair of the conference on Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) in 1997. Mr. Alexander received both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been granted 21 patents and has authored a text on Optical Communication Receiver Design as well as numerous conference presentations and journal articles.

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