FEATURE

Internet of everything

In less than a decade, everything could be connected to the Internet of Things. What impact will this have on the businesses of optical transport vendors, wonders Rebecca Pool

As the world prepares for the Internet of Things (IoT), Verizon claims the technology is already mainstream. In its latest report State of the Market: Internet of Things 2016, the US telecommunications giant asserts 2015 was the year IoT gained legitimacy, and that companies worldwide have IoT ‘squarely on their radar’.

According to the report, the worldwide IoT market is expected to reach US$1.3 trillion in 2019, double today’s figure. Meanwhile the installed base of IoT end points will nearly triple to reach 25.6 billion devices in the same period.

But as wireless industry players get to grips with connecting the proliferation of sensor-laden devices, should optics vendors really care? As Stephan Rettenberger, vice president of marketing and investor relations at ADVA Optical Networking, admits, disruption in mobile networks is going to outweigh any changes that will take place in optical networks.

‘Bandwidth demand is no longer generated by just human beings; a mind-boggling number of [wirelessly connected] devices are now going to be generating and consuming data,’ he said. ‘Ultimately this all comes together in an optical network, which will provide the bandwidth for whoever needs capacity. Without optical networking, [communications] won’t scale,’ he said.

Loudon Blair, senior director of corporate strategy at Ciena, agrees. Although the optical layer of the network will not be directly exposed to the Internet of Things, he is certain that optical will be critical to its success.

‘This layer will not be directly impacted by the significant endpoint scaling and IP address space challenges associated with the enormous device proliferation,’ he explained. ‘But IoT will affect how the access and aggregation networks combine and distribute large volumes of data to and between data centres, and where IoT information will be stored and processed.’

Kyle Hollasch, head of optical marketing at Nokia, also highlights how the tens of billions of devices connected to the IoT will require extremely fast, reliable, flexible and ubiquitous connectivity. ‘Virtual reality, for example, must be connected at any time with extremely low delay,’ he noted. ‘For this, optical connectivity, IP routing and transport will be crucial.’

The coming data deluge

The IoT is likely to span many industries including building management, medical, shipping, airlines, law enforcement and public services. Connected objects will communicate a variety of data types from small telemetry packets to media-rich streaming video.

Across the board, industry players believe that as these billions of devices start transmitting information to the network, large-scale packet aggregation will be critical.

As Ciena’s Loudon Blair points out, network vendors will play an important aggregation role, funnelling IoT traffic from access connections through larger optical pipes to data centres. ‘Vendors will need to scale optical access systems to accommodate growth in aggregate access demand,’ he commented.

Jonathan Homa, director of portfolio marketing at ECI, is adamant that optics vendors will have to look closely at packet-optical transport platforms, and engineer them to support the characteristics of data generated by the IoT.

To date, internet traffic has been characterised by a low frequency of transactions with moderate latency requirements, he explained. Indeed, as he quipped: ‘We can’t even tell if there is an additional 100ms delay in response time to a Google search.’

But this is set to change. As IoT brings more autonomous machine-to-machine applications – think Smart City and, of course, driverless cars, as well as the next generation of human interface device applications, including real-time gaming – networks must provide fast, low-latency responses.

‘We can turn off latency-inducing mechanisms, such as forward error correction, which are absolutely necessary for long-distance communications but may not be needed for IoT applications in a constrained metro-region,’ said Homa.

At the optical transport level, the ECI director highlights the importance of platforms being able to scale ‘gracefully’ from supporting today’s 400G data rates to the blisteringly fast terabit speeds of the future.

Colourless, directionless, contentionless and flexgrid (CDC-F) wavelength routing was recently developed by the optical industry as a way of cost-effectively routing high-capacity wavelengths throughout an optical network.

According to Nokia’s Hollasch, his company’s combination of touchless CDC-F wavelength routing with programmable coherent interfaces and converged packet-optical switching promises to deliver the speeds and latency that IoT will ultimately demand from networks. But as he noted: ‘The truth is, these technologies are still in their infancy in terms of product capability and adoption by network operators.’

‘We continue to invest heavily in programmable optical technologies, particularly coherent digital signal processors, such as the Photonic Service Engine 2, as well as reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexers that bring CDC-F wavelength routing into the mainstream of core and metro deployments,’ he added.

Meanwhile for Infinera, a company that has focused on optical transport since its inception, the IoT is transforming the entire network infrastructure as bandwidth requirements across transport networks continue to grow exponentially. As Pravin Mahajan, director of product marketing at Infinera, points out, optical super-channels are already delivering massive multi-terabit scale on transport networks.

As IoT takes off, the traditional approach in scaling bandwidth using discrete optics-based systems would consume a tremendous amount of power and space resulting in greater operational complexity and inefficiencies. But, according to Mahajan, large-scale photonic integration will make multi-terabit super-channel WDM technology practical by integrating hundreds of discrete optical functions into compact, low-power subsystems.

‘This massive, multi-terabit scale capacity, combined with fine-grained 100G granularity using “sliceable photonics”, can significantly reduce the number of line modules used in a network,’ he said. ‘Each slice in this massive pool of super-channel capacity can be tuned, modulated and routed in separate directions on-demand, individually, in increments of 100G, via simple software defined activation.’

These technologies can dramatically reduce operational rigidity and forecasting complexity by allowing operators to scale their network capacity as required to match the expanding growth in bandwidth needs driven by IoT.

Infinera’s emphasis on automated provisioning highlights another important trend in the industry, as service providers increasingly turn to software-defined networks (SDN) and programmability to fulfil the rapid and low-latency network response demanded by IoT applications.

‘Even more important than raw optical transport, we are supporting the IoT through network function virtualisation platforms,’ said ECI’s Homa. ‘This is the only practical way to deal with IoT response time, latency, and security requirements.’

Importantly, network function virtualisation (NFV) provides a new way to build complex IT applications, decoupling network functions from proprietary hardware appliances and running these in software. As the levels of connectivity associated with the IoT drive software-defined network (SDN) architectures, operators will be able to implement NFV, cutting network and equipment costs, while scaling up services to meet IoT demands.

Given this, myriad optics vendors are building up SDN- and NFV-related products for operators. ADVA recently bought US-based network equipment manufacturer, Overture Networks. In Rettenberger’s words: ‘The acquisition has given as an architecture that is NFV centric, allowing us to deliver virtualised network functions, which are very flexible.’

For its part, ECI has developed the Mercury network function virtualisation platform, which according to Homa, is built on a hyper-converged computing model to combine, for example, caching and security functions to support IoT applications.

‘A huge advantage of our approach is that we can apply policies at the point of origin, such as prioritising latency-dependent IoT traffic over regular centralised cloud traffic,’ he said. ‘And these platforms can be deployed as standalone modules or as blades... to marry transport and IoT applications.’

Optical transport vendor Coriant has also developed its ‘Transcend’ package to provide software-defined networking and NFV capabilities for network scaling. Chief technology officer Uwe Fischer is certain these functions are going to be critical for the networks of tomorrow.

‘Networks are going to become programmable as well as service- and application-aware, and much more intelligent,’ he said. ‘And [eventually] the wide area network will have a software-defined, network-controlled architecture and will seamlessly integrate with data centres.’

Indeed, as he points out, the changes that industry is now seeing in its networks have, to a certain extent, already taken place in data centres, where the need for extreme connectivity has driven radical changes in data centre architecture.

‘We’re seeing a real revolution with how data centres are architected,’ he said. ‘Before we had storage and compute interconnected with the router network inside the data centre, but this is now transformed into [software-defined] packet-forwarding planes, which is the foundation for seamless connectivity of the network.’

‘The programmable network will become a seamless extension of the data centre, instead of just a dump network that simply interconnects with the data centre,’ he added.

Brave new data centres

Data centres are going to be crucial to enabling IoT, and consequently, data centre interconnect (DCI) network connectivity must be ready to distribute the impending terabits of data from IoT with ease.

‘Advances in coherent optics have already paved the way to transmiting data (successfully) at rates of 100G and much higher over almost any distance, dramatically improving the DCI performance that will underpin IoT,’ said Ciena’s Loudon Blair.

But as he points out: ‘Robust connectivity is vital for processing the enormous amounts of data collected from a variety of sensors, as well as the compute capabilities required for big data analytics.’

With this in mind, optics vendors worldwide are busy developing high-capacity DCI platforms, so that data centre operators can rapidly and inexpensively connect to other data centres as well as enterprises and, increasingly, public cloud providers.

For example, Ciena has developed myriad DCI products for enterprises, web-scale operators and data centre operators to connect to different sites. The stackable interconnect system, Waveserver, for one, promises ‘extreme’ capacity and distance.

The Infinera Cloud Xpress was the first purpose-built platform for the popular DCI market. Coriant recently launched Coriant Groove, a drawer-based pizza box system with a low initial cost. And last year ADVA released its FSP 3000 CloudConnect after extensive consultation with its internet and cloud service provider customers.

As ADVA’s Rettenberger pointed out: ‘Today the industry is all about building larger-scale data centres, connecting and clustering them so, given this we launched our new platform for hyper-scale, cloud data centres, called FSP 3000 Cloud Connect.’

But while industry players have repeatedly highlighted how IoT applications will demand fast and low-latency network response, security is also a thorny issue. For example, in medical applications, live data updates from a patient’s pacemaker to the doctor could be intercepted and manipulated. Indeed, the huge amount of data being transported between data centres could be a prime target for any hacker.

With this in mind, data centre network connections will require more security features, with advances in network equipment also delivering low latency, in-flight data encryption.

According to Infinera’s Mahajan, optical channels lying at the heart of multi-terabit scale networks can be encrypted using the standard – and virtually unbreakable – advanced encryption, AES-256. Other vendors, including ADVA and Ciena, have also introduced wire-speed encryption at the optical layer to their products in recent months.

Beyond the optical transport infrastructure and data centres, industry players are also hosting more and more systems on scalable cloud platforms in a bid to address the data influx from internet-connected devices.

In December 2014, US-based IT industry analyst IDC predicted that come 2020, more than 90 per cent of IoT data will be processed by cloud service providers. And ADVA’s Rettenberger concurs that the industry transition towards the cloud is well under way, with industry moving from, as he says, ‘distributed communication culture to a centralised culture’.

‘Data centres are the new hot-spots and cornerstones of networks,’ he said. ‘We also see central office locations being converted into facilities with computer and storage resources… as well as micro-data centres being built on customer premises.’

ECI’s Homa concurs, adding: ‘IoT applications will ultimately drive a shift in cloud-computing models from massive centralised data centres to highly distributed, hyper-converged clouds sitting in close physical proximity to the IoT clients.’

Cloud-based storage services are becoming more widely used, as local storage systems struggle with the explosion of data generated by smartphones, sensors and countless other IoT devices. Ciena’s Blair, for one, reckons most of this data will be tucked away in cloud-based storage services, adding that ‘these will make high-capacity, scalable and secure connections key’.

Direct and indirect impacts

As optical systems vendors prepare for the IoT, they are also questioning how much it will impact their business. Vendors agree that there is a huge market opportunity waiting to be tapped.

‘We expect much greater demand around the areas of mobile backhauling, aggregation networks, and also networks in the context of cloud connectivity,’ said Coriant’s Uwe Fischer. ‘So yes, in terms of impact we expect more business and more revenue from the IoT.’

In one sense, it’s business as usual for developers of high-bandwidth optical systems. ‘Optical networking has always been the workhorse for long-term, year-on-year growth that has been fuelled by different trends at different times,’ commented ADVA’s Stephan Rettenberger.

However, the IoT may have more far-reaching impacts than the bandwidth drivers of old, as optical transport vendors consider the business case for adopting IoT internally. Coriant, for one, also anticipates applying IoT technologies to its own business processes, using them to manage a more complex supply chain or create new service models based around data analytics, for example.

‘This means we are not only a system and solutions provider for Internet of Things but we’re also a user of them. That is a second, very interesting aspect that will also have a concrete positive business impact on us,’ Fischer concluded.

  • Rebecca Pool is a freelance science writer based in Boston, UK
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