Embracing The Alien

April 28th, 2021 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by: Aleck Gilner, SVP Cloud and Strategic Sales, LightRiver

In pop culture Area 51 is the common name of a highly classified United States Air Force base located in the Nevada Test and Training range. It’s reputed to be the final resting place for an alien spacecraft recovered in Roswell New Mexico in 1947 and much later, of course, incongruously piloted by actor Will Smith to defeat a race of alien insurgents in the movie Independence Day. But I digress.

When it comes to open and disaggregated optical networks, however, the aliens are not only among us, but they also, surprisingly, come with benefits.

The industry coined reference (e.g., ‘Alien Waves’) is becoming increasingly real as Hyperscale, FAANG, Tier 1 DC/Exchange and Tier 1 wireless/wireline providers, are leveraging Open Optical and Network Disaggregation to ‘plug-and-play’ multi-vendor network elements and components for best-of-breed solutioning. The accelerated pace of new technology introduction, including the availability of 400G ZR/ZR+ optics have created a new life-cycle paradigm making optical disaggregation the future norm.

As this solution gains traction, we have evolved with it to develop the term Alien Aware Networking to focus directly on this area as we support the engineering, deployment, management and  automation of these Open Optical networks.

This maturation of where we believe the industry is headed embraces alien wavelengths, allowing them to be readily monitored, analyzed, and managed end-to-end, no matter what suppliers or technologies are leveraged. This can exist within a single network operator, or across multiple interconnected operator networks to manage, ultimately, the underlying wavelength services.

What Are Alien Wavelengths and Why Do They Matter?

In a DWDM system, an ‘alien wavelength’ is a colored optical signal that originates on networking equipment that is different or ‘alien’ from the optical line system. Alien waves can originate via transponders from a different manufacturer or from dissimilar technology such as a router with colored optics. Alien waves are transparent to the optical line systems and not under the management or control of the line system’s NMS.

How do we know there is a shift towards open and disaggregated optical networks? In a recent industry survey conducted by Heavy Reading,(1) respondents established that disaggregated  open optical networks (defined as a ‘multi-vendor environment where service providers can mix and match transponders/muxponders from multiple vendors with an optical system from another supplier’) are an increasing area of focus for network operators.

While at 18%, a minority share of operators has deployed open optical networks to date. Respondents have high expectations for the 2021–22 timeframe, when an additional 48% expect to deploy open optical networks globally.

When asked what the biggest benefits derived from deploying a multi-vendor open optical networking solution, these included eliminating vendor lock-in, lowering capex and being able to innovate faster. Each of these factors was selected by more than 50% of respondents. Specifically, operators place a higher priority, mostly, on eliminating the aforementioned vendor lock-in and lower capex for optical networks when compared to disaggregated networking benefits overall.

Conversely, when asked about their biggest barriers to the adoption of multi-vendor open optical networking, nearly two-thirds (65%) of respondents cited operational complexity of dealing with multiple vendors, followed by a lack of standards, selected by 54%. While standardization can help reduce some of the challenge of working with multiple vendors, operational complexity transcends standard interfaces and, as with disaggregation in general, most operators will need industry help in operating them.

Further, according to this industry article (2) summarizing these findings, another capability that may be holding service providers back is underinvestment in software automation and SDN controller deployments. Initiatives such as TIP-MUST (Mandatory Use Case Requirements for SDN for Transport), a sub-group recently created by leading operators in the Open Optical & Packet Transport (OOPT) group within the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which aims to accelerate the adoption of transport SDN solutions, may help unblock the required automation investments.

These results highlight the issues to getting started with open optical as (1) needing help to lab validate and test all the unique combinations (plug-and-play optionality) and (2), help with design, engineering, and proof-of-concept testing, and most importantly (3), providing end-to-end management and SDN-Control to orchestrate and manage the full life-cycle of services on an open optical network.

Without such network evolution (and as the survey results properly conclude), service providers will fail to get beyond the #1 perceived barrier to deployment — which is operational complexity. They may also miss out on key benefits like improved transmission performance and enhanced network economics, resulting in reduced networking competitiveness.

How Alien Aware Networks Address NextGen Concerns

As the transport network is quickly evolving toward Open, Disaggregated, Plug-and-Play architectures, end-to-end network management is more critical than ever. Key to allowing network operators to embrace the benefits of alien waves without the shortcomings that currently exist is an environment built for and enabled by multi-vendor, multi-technology open optical network automation.

Ideally this includes support for DWDM Open Line, Open ROADM, NextGen DCI/Waves platforms, Pluggable Optics and the latest Packet Edge transport, all of which enable real-time inventory, programmable analytics and control automation. This automation also requires uniform management of multi-vendor and multi-technology to make it ‘all look the same,’ leveraging data and analytics to baseline performance and make it all ‘actionable.’

The end game, of course, is comprehensive management of the underlying wavelength services. Granted, it’s an outcome that is slightly more mundane than saving the Earth from alien invaders. However, in the grander scheme of enabling more efficient transport architectures for network operators and service providers, it’s certainly worth a visit, albeit virtually, to our reimagining of Area 51 and an exploration therein of Alien Aware Networking.


  1. Heavy Reading: Open and Disaggregated Packet and Optical Networks: A 2020 Heavy Reading Survey https://www.infinera.com/white-paper/open-and-disaggregated-packet-and-optical-networks
  2. Is Your Optical Network Ready for Open and Disaggregated? https://www.infinera.com/blog/is-your-optical-network-ready-for-open-and-disaggregated/tag/open/?utm_source=SHP&utm_medium=Blog&utm_campaign=HROpenReport

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Categories: Fiber Networks · Industry Viewpoint · SDN · Telecom Equipment

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