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Optical Networking, Redefined.
May 6, 2021

400G Digital Coherent Optics: Managing Vital Network Data in a Mixed Vendor Environment

Lightseer on computer screen with right aligned DCO message

Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Eliminating vendor lock? We couldn’t support that more.

No matter where you turn in the optical network space today, network operators are moving away from relying on a single vendor for their network solutions. Customization and speed to market are everything as web 2.0 companies, MSOs, MNOs and other service providers evolve their networks to handle higher speeds and bandwidths.

That said, while sourcing equipment from multiple vendors has significant benefits, it can also lead to increased system complexity and the headaches associated with that. Here’s what we should all be able to agree on right now: anything we do in life is always going to have a certain level of risk. The real question lies in how to address and mitigate it.

We riffed on this idea in a previous blog post on the disaggregated market of open RAN. In this post, we’ve got our lens focused on managing digital coherent optics (DCO) in a mixed-vendor environment. Think of this as a look into the future – how to end up with the optimized network you want, even as you work on building it now.

Coherent Optic Evolution and The Problem of Information Overload

As you probably guessed, when we talk about DCO, what we’re actually referring to is the growing use of 400ZR and ZR+ optics from multiple vendors, all within the same network. To establish a starting point for our discussion, think back to the difference between DCOs and analog coherent optics (ACOs). The answer, of course, is in where the digital signal processors (DSPs) reside – within the optical module itself for DCOs and off-module for ACOs.

Between 2016 and 2018, the market for coherent optics began to shift from the classic CFP2-ACO module to the CFP2-DCO. Having the DSP inside a DCO optic allows operators to gather and leverage more data that can be used to optimize the network. In fact, use of DCOs gives operators greater abilities around reconfiguring their networks in real-time in response to changing demands. As we all know, however, nothing ever stays the same for long in optical networking.

Enter 400G ZR and Open ZR+, two modern standards for pluggable, coherent 400G DWDM optics that offer the multi-vendor interoperability today’s network operators want. While the 400ZR standard concentrates on metro, point-to-point network links of up to 120km, Open ZR+ allows for metro, regional and longer-haul transport of up to 400km. Though both standards can use the QSFP-DD, OSFP and CFP2-DCO modules, the smaller QSFP-DD form factor is currently projected to be the market leader.

Here’s the most important point out of all that: 400G ZR and Open ZR+ allow network operators to mix coherent interfaces from differing vendors within existing networks.  When it comes to monitoring and optimizing such a network in a holistic fashion – well, that’s where the trouble begins. Often, vendor-specific modules come with vendor-specific network management systems. Trying to use coherent optics from different vendors can mean leveraging different types of network management systems, each with their own specific reporting capabilities. As you can see, this could be a one-way ticket to information overload, inefficiency and missed opportunities to truly optimize your network.

Evolving Lightseer® Into the DCO Space

When it comes to evaluating and maintaining your network in a multi-vendor environment, the number one question is: how can I sort out what data from one vendor means relative to another?

This is where our team comes in. You already know us as optical networking specialists and not just another transceiver manufacturer. As a result, it stands to reason that we’ve been thinking about this question … a lot. In many ways, we’re a little ahead of our time on this one. The adoption of these new 400G DCO standards that enable vendor interoperability is, in many ways, still getting started. But that’s all the more reason to be ready with a solution to a challenge that will only grow in importance.

If you’ve been a part of our community for a while, you probably know about Lightseer®, the industry’s first technology designed to monitor and analyze physical layers of optical software-defined networks. Through machine learning and predictive analytics, this tool gives network operators real-time data all the way down to transceivers and individual optical links, identifying anomalies and forecasting potential failures before they cause network downtime.

Most importantly to the coherent optic space, Lightseer® is compatible across multiple platforms – the Ciscos, Junipers and Alcatels of the world. Basically, it’s an all-encompassing way for network operators to harness the data that individual network management systems report and use it to optimize their networks seamlessly. Think of it like this – there’s no need to reinvent the wheel, but if you actually want to go places, it’s necessary to give these wheels a vehicle that can put them to work for you.

In many ways, Lightseer® is this vehicle for network analytics and more.  It is not only just a monitoring tool, but it can also help suggest configuration changes that can improve the efficiency of your operations. When using different types of coherent interfaces and network management systems from different vendors all within one network, efficiency really is paramount. How you organize and leverage the information your optics give you is just as important as the journey to selecting those optics in the first place.

Are you building out a network where you’ll need to manage DCOs in a mixed-vendor environment? If so, we can help answer your questions. Reach out to us and one of our engineers will be happy to assist.