Photonics, Paving the Way for Next-Generation Networks

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The development, transformation and boom in connectivity uses requires a new network architecture that meets new capacity requirements. The European R&D project OCTAPUS aims to design a next-generation ecosystem, capitalizing on the properties of photonic technologies.

In recent years, the demand for connectivity has grown and diversified. As the needs of consumers skyrocket and expand, manufacturers are looking for new critical services that require high performance in terms of reliability and latency. Changes in use mean a network (r)evolution is needed, in order to become more efficient, more configurable and adaptable.

At the Central Office

The OCTAPUS project, which brings together 11 partners, carriers, suppliers, photonics experts and academic institutions, focuses on the development of optical equipment that will be integrated into next-generation networks, and more specifically at the Central Office. “The Central Office is the first node where the carrier is present,” explains Fabienne Saliou, Fixed Access Networks Research Engineer at Orange. “We use equipment and machines that have undergone very little or no further development since the first fiber deployments in 2006. The implementation of new photonic technologies in this environment would represent a significant step up from the electronic engineering that is active in this area today, in terms of performance, latency, security and energy consumption.”

From Electronic to All-Optical Devices

Due to the need for optical to electronic conversion and vice versa, the significant footprint made by electronics in the current ecosystem is slowing down signal transmission. “The OCTAPUS project studies the development and integration of low-power optical switches into the carrier’s fixed endpoint equipment (the Optical Line Terminal, OLT) at the Central Office,” explains Chris Vagionas, Researcher at the Wireless and Photonic Systems and Networks (WinPhoS) group at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. “This would be a major leap in performance, since we would go from a capacity of 2 TB/s with current electronic equipment to 50 TB/s, thanks to innovative backplane devices and optical switching transceivers, and even beyond that figure to prepare for the decades to come, up to more than 200 TB/s of capacity.”

Optimize Optical Routing

These new optical switches are based on a silicon nitride platform, the properties of which (such as its density and its very high refractive index) are valuable in the field of integrated optics. On a single chip, it would therefore be possible to integrate different optical functions (laser, isolator, filter), resulting in more efficient transmission with reduced energy consumption.

The project stakeholders are also studying the creation of an optical bypass, capable of directly linking the expressed need to the content to be delivered. In a conventional network architecture, the movement of data involves passage through different junction nodes: traversing the OLT system takes 20 microseconds, for example. An optical bypass would avoid these steps by automatically configuring the optimal end-to-end optical path, from traffic demand to content.

Three Years to Explore the Future of Networks

Launched in 2022, OCTAPUS will span three and a half years, starting with the development of specifications and requirements on architecture evolution, a phase during which the perspective of carriers, including Orange, is key. The development and integration of two prototypes, Optical Line Card (OLC) and optical switch, will then occupy the project partners, before a stage of experimentation and testing on a carrier network and two use cases (high-speed traffic and low latency) for future mobile networks.

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