Three Practical Steps for Building A Quantum Network (Yes, Now!)

March 31st, 2023 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Cara Alexander, Product manager at Aliro Quantum.

Quantum Communication is a rapidly emerging technology grounded in a robust tradition of academic theory and experimentation.  However, because the industry is still young, building a quantum network is uniquely complex, combining some of the hardest problems in science and engineering. Very few organizations have skill sets in both classical networking and quantum physics and many view quantum networking as a future problem to address. But the last year also saw a number of exciting (and some concerning) quantum technology advancements. Quantum is here, and the benefits to thinking about building a quantum network now are plentiful.

The Benefits Of Early Adoption

Today’s quantum computers are able to perform some calculations more quickly than their classical computing counterparts, but they will not be  able to solve truly practical problems until they scale up their qubit counts and implement error correction. This has led some organizations to delay adoption of quantum computing, but this does nothing to address the very real risk that future quantum computers pose to today’s sensitive encrypted data..  It is also dangerous to overlook the undeniable truth that rolling out any kind of new technology solution takes time, especially in a large conservative industry or organization.

Early adopters will benefit by being ready to implement and deploy while the potential and practical uses of the technology are still being worked out. Because quantum computers and quantum networks will require companies to invest in infrastructure, develop their workforce, and coordinate their systems and processes according to their needs, beginning now means that early adopters will be poised to leap ahead of competitors seamlessly as the technology comes online. It’s not a matter of when quantum networking will reach its full potential, but a matter of being ready for a smooth transition to utilize it quickly and competitively. Building now, while the technology is in its nascent stages, also provides a number of opportunities for collaboration. Providers have the ability to evaluate and fine tune applications for real-world use cases, looking at functionality, security, performance and interoperability BEFORE they need to deploy anything.

But where should an organization even get started? There’s a general 3 step process that lays out some of the essential building blocks for service providers, Enterprises, and public sector entities.

Step One: Design

Many technology projects fail without a sufficiently detailed, realistic plan, and more fail because providers try to do too much too soon. Because of the big promise that quantum technology holds, it can be very tempting to invest a lot of money into a project and go straight to deployment mode,rushing into buying what you can right now and trying to find uses for the technology later. This is not efficient or effective.

The first step of building a quantum network should be a design and emulation phase. This is a mode in which organizations identify their plans, goals, budget and risks BEFORE starting the design process. Success will rely on an organization’s ability to start defining these in a very concrete way. Questions to ask include:

  • What are the specific requirements my organization has for a quantum network?
  • What benefits can we expect from quantum networking?
  • What’s the long term value? Short term value?
  • What could it protect us from?
  • What could it unlock for us in terms of being able to do a better job in our unique domain?
  • What could it do for us in terms of being able to offer new or differentiated services?

After that is done, providers can start creating realistic performance estimates for concrete network data or network design drafts.

This is where a simulator comes in. Once the provider has a clear understanding of what it wants to do with the network, it can create drafts and designs, and plug them into a quantum network simulator to see if they will provide value and support the desired applications. When choosing a quantum simulator, the whole process must be taken into consideration. Some simulators will look at the small scale and model what happens physically at the photonic level, and others focus on a large scale looking at how the network behaves as a whole and what network protocols look like. If the organization is serious about creating a cohesive blueprint to actually build a quantum network, the simulator needs to be flexible enough to model the whole network stack from the photonic level to the entire network.

Once a provider runs designs through the simulator and monitors performance, it can start to make informed, data-driven decisions about the necessary trade offs in cost, performance, and node placement. Next, it can evaluate the performance and interoperability of competing hardware modalities and devices before purchasing, ruling out both obvious and subtle incompatibilities.

In this stage, providers can also discern which use cases are viable on the planned network implementation as well as set and manage expectations for what the full network is going to be capable of. Just like with classical networks, quantum networks will include a layered stack of software that helps the hardware perform like a functional network instead of like an experiment. That software can also be built, developed, tested, and fine tuned during the emulation and simulation phase. Creating the full network stack, developing test procedures, benchmarking protocols, building interfaces for applications, and getting all these pieces to  work together BEFORE buying any hardware significantly reduces cost and risk.  Additionally, it allows for uninterrupted progress even in the face of long hardware lead times caused by widespread supply chain limitations.

Step Two: Trial

The second step in building a quantum network is a pilot and trial mode where providers create a small testbed, try things out and debug. This is the ideal time and place to figure out what needs to change before scaling up. Going through the design and emulation step first takes out a lot of the surprises that providers would usually find during a pilot and makes this second phase more efficient.  However, there is no substitute for getting your hands on physical hardware and facing the unique challenges associated with optimally leveraging different modalities and devices, especially if you are intending to repurpose any existing telecom resources. During this phase, the organization builds a small scale quantum network that is used to characterize and  optimize performance and gain internal familiarity with the technology. Furthermore, this provides a crucial opportunity to test the interoperability between quantum networking devices, optical components, and existing infrastructure ranging from deployed optical fiber to software.

The pilot is also where providers can demonstrate a concrete proof of concept to key stakeholders and secure budget and resource allocation for scale deployment.

Step Three: Deploy

After the provider builds a strong foundation with emulation and piloting, it can confidently scale quantum networks and integrate end to end applications. With an operational

entanglement-based quantum network, providers can support transformative applications in quantum secure communications, distributed quantum sensing, blind quantum computing, and the next killer app that we haven’t even identified yet.

An Uncertain but Certainly Exciting Future

We are still in the early stages of quantum networking technology development and proliferation. However, as progress starts to accelerate with new challenges being identified and overcome every day, an inflection point seems near.  Although we have no idea what technical capabilities and social transformations a future quantum internet will bring or even what the next innovation will be, we do know that there are practical uses right now and clear and concrete ways to get started with quantum network implementation.

Cara Alexander is a product manager at Aliro Quantum. She has a diverse academic research background from stellar astrophysics to medical physics and applied deep neural networks.  In the public and private sector, she has focused on bringing highly technical advances in the quantitative sciences out of the lab and into people’s lives by creating functional and transformative tangible solutions. 

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Categories: Industry Viewpoint · Quantum

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