Nice Notes – Take Aways from NGON & DCI Europe 2018
Part I: The Optical 5G Promise
Last week was the 20th edition of the NGON event in Nice, arguably one of the most important optical events in Europe. Despite the beautiful location, a lot of smart people spent their days inside the Acropolis talking about all things optical and visiting the vendors on the show floor.
As a largely sponsored-speaker event, it can be hard to nail down themes from the show. Sponsored speakers generally want to talk about topics that are important and relevant to the hardware and software that they are building. However, by the end of the show a few themes had emerged – and the one with the most discussion was probably the impact of 5G on optical (and vice versa).
Full disclosure – ECI sponsored a breakfast on the opening day that focused on 5G and I served on a panel during that breakfast. I also spoke on Thursday about 5G’s focus on services and the impact on the optical network. So I could be biased for thinking that 5G was a major topic, but 5G as a trend was reported by other analysts and press so the bias appears to be justified.
The best summary of 5G discussions at NGON was made by a representative from a Tier 1 European carrier who said, “I guess we’ve defined all of the questions now. Maybe next year we can start defining some answers.” There are indeed a lot of questions around how optical and 5G will be rolled out. Everyone talking about 5G shows the triangle of competing requirements – low latency/high reliability, high bandwidth, and enormous scalability/IoT – but everyone has their own view of how that will be accomplished. The only part that everyone agrees on is that the impact on the traditional mobile backhaul network will be significant.
At the 5G breakfast, the panel was asked what would, in their view, be the killer app for 5G and optical. The simplest answer to that question is high bandwidth, whether for fixed broadband or mobile. The impact of 5G radios with a maximum range of about 1 mile and a throughput of multiple of 10Gbps will be enormous. Reasonable discussions can be had about putting 100Gbps links to tower sites. Even lower density sites will be connected very quickly into aggregation networks with capacities of multiple 10Gbps, either on wavelengths or on ever speedier connections (100Gbps, 200Gpbs, etc.). That represents an enormous amount of fiber and fiber optic equipment that will need to be deployed. What exactly that equipment will be and how much it will cost may be debatable, but 5G looks to be providing terrific job security for folks in the optical industry for a long time.
However, another good point was made in a panel discussion on 5G. You don’t want to build your 5G backhaul with only the high bandwidth component in mind. You have to be thinking about the other two components as well. Otherwise, when a customer comes to your network and asks for a service that requires low latency and/or high scalability, you won’t have time to react. The framework must be in place from the beginning to support all three vertices of the triangle, even if all three are not part of the services rollout plan on day 1. That framework could include more closely connected cell sites, more edge located compute and store resources, more dense fiber deployment, and architectural decisions on the equipment that is put into place.
A big part of the decisions on how to build an optical network to support 5G is in the flexibility and programmability of the network. The optical industry has talked about SDN for several years now, but with 5G SDN is no longer optional. In order to get the full capabilities out of a 5G fronthaul/backhaul network, some higher level intelligence that is aware of the applications and requirements will need to be implemented. Whether the infrastructure is based on PON, a flat switch/router network, a microwave and fiber mix, built by one contractor or shared by many players, or any mix of the above, SDN will be a firm requirement to get the most out of the resulting architecture. Only via orchestration can the many requirements and promises of the 5G network – and all points of the triangle – be met simultaneously. (Did I happen to mention that ECI won the NGON award for “Best Multi-Layer SDN Controller”?)
The discussion on 5G at NGON were intense, intelligent, wide ranging, and very interesting. This blog post only scratches the surface. More questions were raised than answers were delivered, but the questions are getting more specific and the answers are just over the horizon. It should be very exciting to hear more about those answers next year in Nice.
For more information, watch the video.