Increased adoption of cloud applications, content services, and high-bandwidth connectivity technologies is constantly driving the need for capacity in operator optical transport networks.

Along with this set of drivers, the topology of the network is also changing, driven by the demands of centralized and distributed data centers, which generate increasing amounts of inbound, outbound, and east-west (DC- to-DC) traffic. Finally, this set of industry trends is also driving operators to transform their business services to better account for the needs of clients utilizing DC-based services and applications, thus – again – influencing the optical network and equipment design.

Along with the increasing need for bandwidth and changing network topologies that must cope with the massive increase of DC-generated traffic, operators also need to focus on sustainably building and transforming their networks. This sustainability imperative effectively translates into improving energy efficiency, and better use of available space in deployment locations. It also favors automation, and increased manageability in all types of networks, including optical transport. Finally, the networks must be built in a financially sustainable way, utilizing technologies that allow for fast and easy scaling, at acceptable price points.

This evolution of optical transport networks, driven by generational changes in telecommunications ecosystem translates into the following factors:

  • Expanding Data Center Needs: The growth of cloud services, social media, content platforms, and, increasingly, the needs of gaming and AI-centered computing has driven the need for data center facilities, especially the large ones. Additionally, increased quality of service demands – for example, the need for lower latency – have forced cloud service providers and content providers to cache their data closer to the user. This trend has driven the need for more data centers within the metro network footprint. Data center proliferation increasingly shapes the demand for optical transport equipment, with non-telco players (like cloud service providers or content players) purchasing transport services in high volumes or building their own networks.
  • Growing Focus on Fiber Utilization: Incessant growth of traffic in the core and wide adoption of 100 GbE, 400 GbE, and 800 GbE client interfaces drive the push toward increasing efficiency in fiber utilization. Most vendors are betting on increasing wavelength capacity, with coherent solutions offering up to 1.2T per wavelength generally available, with 1.6T solutions announced. Most of the coherent solutions introduced since 2018 have much higher flexibility built in, allowing for the use of high-order modulation schemes (like 64-QAM) that enable balancing capacity and reach to match deployed fiber plant characteristics. For long-haul applications, new coherent solutions’ headline speeds should be taken only as a convenient label because in practical deployment scenarios, they may end up supporting lower wavelength capacities over longer distances. Additionally, the latest crop of coherent chipsets will allow for much better mapping of FlexE client interfaces to line interfaces, increasing fiber utilization further.
  • Performance-Oriented and Cost-Optimized Transport: As demand for bandwidth grows throughout optical transport domains, coherent optical transmission solutions have diversified into two distinct categories: high performance discrete solutions, and cost-optimized pluggable modules. High-performance solutions enable operators to maximize spectrum utilization and reach of their optical transport, but are more costly, and utilize more space and power. Pluggable coherent modules do not offer as high spectrum utilization and reach as the high-performance ones but allow operators to deploy coherent line interfaces in use-cases where focus is on power, space, and cost savings. Implementation of one or the other type of coherent solution in core packet-optical will vary on a case-by-case basis and will give vendors the ability to better match their products to customers’ needs.
  • Evolved Network Control and Management: Increasing traffic, changing network topologies, and constantly growing need for improved service availability, quality, velocity, and flexibility means that operators cannot rely on old network management systems to operate optical networks with efficiency required. Software powering evolved optical networks must be capable of supporting elevated level of automation, complete and real-time network observability, and reduce downtime and configuration errors, allowing network change testing without touching the production network.

The set of challenges and requirements network operators face in developing their infrastructures defines the evolution of optical transport equipment. The design principles and platform capabilities of optical transport platforms are therefore developing in the following directions:

  • Increased Capacity and Switching Features: Optical transport platforms require high OTN and packet throughput. Optical Service Unit (OSU) path layer network based on OTN is also increasingly used to improve flexibility of OTN and improve its applicability, predominantly in private line business.
  • High density of High-Speed Client Ports: Traffic volume and network capacity growth in metro continues to drive the requirement for high density of client interfaces in the core. As the use of 100G and 400G line interfaces in the metro increases, the most important feature for core packet-optical platforms is the support for high density of 100GbE, 400GbE, and OTU-4 client interfaces. Soon, the support for transporting 800GbE interfaces will become key, as the adoption of this technology grows in IP networks.
  • High-Performance Coherent Transport: Platforms used in DC-centric networks are primarily used to transport high volumes of data in increasingly complex (mesh or ring) network topologies over differing distances. This requires the balance of high bandwidth and reach (through coherent module tunability), and usually requires operators to make platform and solution choices that enable them to maximize optical spectrum utilization and fiber use across the whole network. Ideally, core optical transport platforms need to support very high maximum bandwidth per wavelength over long distances, with 800G speeds over long fiber spans consider the golden standard.
  • Sophisticated Transport Features: With highly concentrated traffic coming from large-scale DCs, the core optical transport node capacity is growing as well. Optical vendors are actively developing solutions that allow seamless capacity growth to over 100 Tbps of throughput. As per-wavelength line interface speeds are increasing to 1.6T (and potentially higher), the slot capacity is also scaling, from 1.6Tbps to 3.2 Tbps and beyond. Two options are becoming mainstream: the first is clustering multiple chassis and managing it as a single network entity, and the second is high-scale optical cross-connects.
  • Automation and AI Powering Network Flexibility and Manageability: Optical system vendors increasingly strive to implement automation into their networking software solutions – both to improve manageability and reduce fault- and maintenance related downtime. AI is increasingly used to analyze complex network traffic patterns, correlate alarms, find fault root causes, and identify pre-fault states in proactive maintenance. Vendors are also starting to experiment with GenAI, particularly in facilitating natural language man/machine communications in the management interface software.
  • Increased Importance of Physical Attributes: Operators deploying core platforms are constantly seeking to reduce their networks’ power footprint while growing capacity. The current crop of platforms provides power/transport capacity ratios of well below 1W/Gb – the lower the better. As per-chassis capacity grows to 100T and more, and line interface speeds increase to 1.6T, vendors need to pay closer attention to lowering power consumption and improving heat dissipation. The evolutionary trend is for platforms tailored for data center environments to fit within 600mm rack-depth and come with data center-friendly features such as front-to-back cooling. For DC applications, platforms need to be 19-inch rack compatible, and power supply options suitable for DC environment (AC/DC/HVDC).

Optical transport networks are increasingly designed with a view to carrying growing amounts of traffic to, from, and between data center locations. To satisfy the needs of DC-centric networks, a new breed of optical transport platform is needed to bridge the requirements of the data center installation, high performance and spectral efficiency, and sophisticated feature set allowing deployment in complex topologies.

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Operators and hyperscale providers should carefully examine how fit-for-purpose their networks are in DC-centric environments and adjust their network development strategies to serve contemporary and future data center traffic requirements with required capacity, manageability, and scalability.