The pattern is set – the number of data centers in the world continues to grow in order to support the expanding needs of enterprises, cloud service providers and indeed the services we all use as consumers. These data centers are taking many forms too, from tiny data centers at the edges of corporate networks performing specialist jobs, to the giants of cloud computing and content delivery, such as Amazon, Google and Microsoft.

But underpinning the data centers is the need to make sure that telecommunications networks can support the ever-increasing demand for speed, bandwidth, flexibility and simplicity. The latest evolutions taking place across the industry not only seek to meet the needs of the future data center market, but also bring greater simplicity and flexibility to running and investing in networks for operators.

For decades in the telecoms industry, optics and IP disciplines have been treated as separate disciplines. This has been true both in terms of skills and the technology itself, with the need for separate optical line and IP transponders placed back-to-back in transmission racks across networks. This technology has also been largely proprietary, making it harder for network operators to explore different technologies or vendor offerings without significant operational (and often financial) overheads.

Finally, though, a real acceptance is now taking hold amongst vendors that the market wants to move towards an open approach, and the benefits that it can bring are great for future growth in the data center market. Importantly, the willingness of suppliers to support this change means that operators can finally start to take advantage and deliver new open networks fit for the needs of the future.

The new dawn of IPoDWDM

The idea of open and disaggregated networks is not entirely new, but it has gained new impetus.

Today’s open line technologies have created more opportunities to lower costs and to buy the best equipment. This, coupled with the development of IPoDWDM (IP over dense wave division multiplexing) and 400G ZR optical pluggables, has changed the playing field - 400G ZR circuits are now up and running in the main capital cities in the Nordics, for instance. Collapsing the IP and transmission layers into fully standards-based single pluggables eliminates a lot of equipment from racks and allows operators to build cheaper and faster to more locations. This is bringing huge bandwidth, speed and simplicity benefits for operators and data center owners alike. One such benefit is enabling data center owners to operate end-to-end using the Ethernet family of technologies and associated skills that is the bedrock of their networks.

Fully standardized pluggable components bring a wealth of opportunities to mix and match between different suppliers for operators. Rather than being tied to a system or commercial relationship, operators can source the technology they need to avoid supply chain bottlenecks, or the need to purchase new base systems which comes with large up-front capex costs, deployment and testing delays.

The use of open and disaggregated IPoDWDM and pluggables will allow operators to more quicky increase the depth of connectivity they can offer into key metro locations as bandwidth needs grow or new data center connectivity is required. It also lowers the cost to operators of offering route diversity – where previously desired routes to support improved fault tolerance, or more flexible maintenance and upgrade paths, may have been prohibitively expensive. Again, for data center operators, this gives them previously unseen levels of resilience.

Getting beyond the equipment

As an industry, the very nature of open networks and IPoDWDM means that the task of operating networks is going to become more complicated. Today, what is meant to be 100 percent interoperable and open, is not. Operators may be able to mix equipment of different types from different suppliers and ensure it functions at a traffic level, but this alone will not be enough. As an industry we will need to continue working hard to ensure that, at an operational level, we can achieve (and even exceed) the orchestration and network automation features that we enjoy today. These operational elements are a critical component of the customer experience for data center customers, something that none of us want to see degraded.

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