Cisco chases quantum tech

Cisco research is aimed at developing quantum networks, data centers, and internet technologies that will connect differently than classic networks.

Quantum computing  >  A quantum processor radiates power.
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When it comes to hardcore quantum computing players Cisco might not be the first company you think of, but that could change a lot in 2022 and beyond.

For starters, the company is investing in photonics development, which will enable quantum communications as well as other hardware and software technologies for quantum computing, networking, and cryptography. 

Developing quantum technologies was also one of the top predictions on the 2022 predictions list of Cisco’s executive vice president, general manager and Chief Strategy Officer Liz Centoni. 

“Quantum computing, communications, and security will power a faster, more secure future that demands a reinvention of how systems work and communicate via an evolved Internet with even lower latency and higher bandwidth,” Centoni stated.   “Quantum computing and security will interconnect very differently than classical communications networks, which stream bits and bytes to provide voice and data information.”

Of particular interest to Cisco is future development of quantum-based networks, data centers, and internet technologies.

“Quantum networking could enable a new type of secure connection between digital devices, making them impenetrable to hacks,” Centoni stated. “As this type of foolproof security becomes achievable with quantum networking, it could lead to better fraud protection for transactions. In addition, this higher quality of secure connectivity may also be able to protect voice and data communications from any interference or snooping. All of these possibilities would re-shape the internet we know and use today.”

Looking closer, Cisco’s vision is twofold--to build quantum data centers that could use classic local area network concepts to tie together quantum computers to communicate to solve big problems or a quantum-based network that transmitsquantum bits [qubits] from quantum servers at high-speeds to handle commercial-grade applications, said Ramana Kompella a Distinguished Engineer and the head of research in the Emerging Tech and Incubation group at Cisco.

“We envision a hybrid networking environment that would support classic signaling and other technologies using photonics to transmit qubits server-to-server," Kompella said.

Photonics technology, which uses light to transmit data and control a variety of networking mechanisms, will also play a big role in most quantum environments, Kompella said.

“Given the engineering complexity of different technologies, we envision photonics will play a central role in realizing large-scale quantum computers either for single-chip processors or to build a distributed computing system,” Alireza Shabani an engineer with Cisco wrote in a recent blog talking about why photonics technology will play such a big part in quantum networking. 

“Currently, the focus of quantum computing hardware projects is to showcase units of less than one hundred qubits, while challenges begin when we want to scale the systems to thousands and eventually millions. Which technology platform has a better chance for faster scaling depends on the complexity of the hardware system and the architecture,” Shabani wrote. ”Modularity  is a way to lower the system complexity, which in the case of quantum computing can be achieved by having quantum chips connected via photonic interconnects in a distributed fashion. Besides scalability, photonic networks allow all-to-all connectivity between modules which results in a major boost in the computational power of the system.”

While some of the theories behind quantum networking a data center are embryonic at this point, the notion of a quantum internet is more advanced. 

For example, scientists from the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei announced a year ago what they claimed was the world's first integrated quantum communication network. The network tied over 700 optical fibers on the ground with two ground-to-satellite links to achieve quantum key distribution over a distance of close to 3,000 miles for users across China. 

“Unlike conventional encryption, quantum communication is considered unhackable and therefore the future of secure information transfer for banks, power grids and other sectors," the scientists stated.  “The core of quantum communication is quantum key distribution (QKD), which uses the quantum states of particles—e.g. photons—to form a string of zeros and ones, while any eavesdropping between the sender and the receiver will change this string or key and be noticed immediately.”

Cisco is part of the Center for Quantum Networks that has as a goal to build the quantum internet, which it says will spur new technology industries and a competitive marketplace of quantum service providers and application developers.

The European Quan­tum Inter­net Alliance and the US Department of Energy are likewise looking to pull together indus­tri­al and aca­d­e­m­ic partners to further quantum communications.

The quantum internet indeed will be primarily for security use cases where users need to securely communicate location to location over many miles, Kompella said.  “Technologies to develop the quantum internet and the security use case are being developed all around the world,” Kompella said.

Other applications will be developed such as privacy-preserving apps, also known as blind computing, where quantum servers handle work without “knowing” all of the information about the work. Fraud detection, particle simulation and climate applications are all targets for distributed quantum technology to work on, Kompella said.

Cisco, too, has many irons in the quantum-development fire. Cisco Research posted a request for proposal for Quantum Technologies in January 2021 that is still open, looking for a variety  of technologies including:

  • Photon sources and detection technology
  • Fabrication methods and materials for photonic integrated circuit
  • Quantum networks applications
  • Quantum cryptography beyond QKD
  • Security of quantum cryptography protocols

Cisco has already partnered with UC Santa Barbara to develop a quantum photonic chip.

Cisco is part of a growing quantum community that includes IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Baidu, Honeywell, Quantinuum, and many others.  Other traditional networking competitors are also getting in the game. Last September Juniper and quantum specialists at Arquit Quantum entered a technology partnership to develop network security technology that will protect against quantum security threats.

The technology is certainly only beginning to take shape and Kompella and others say the industry is five to 10 years from meaningful adoption. But the interest is certainly there as Gartner expects nearly 40% of large enterprises to have some quantum initiatives by 2025 and IDC projects the worldwide quantum computing market be worth $8.6 Billion in 2027.

Major breakthroughs in quantum computing technology, a maturing quantum-computing-as-a-service infrastructure and platform market, and the growth of performance intensive computing workloads suitable for quantum technology will drive most of the market growth, IDC stated. 

“For the next decade, quantum computing  hype will remain. Across the vendor and service provider landscape, CIOs will run into the challenge of those who underpromise but underdeliver on QC capabilities,” said Chirag Dekate, an analyst with Gartner at the company’s recent IT Symposium/Xpo 2021. “Quantum computing is not a general-purpose technology and can only currently be applied to a narrow set of use cases: optimization problems, organic chemistry, material science, biochemistry, and security. Gartner anticipates this list growing in the next five to 10years.”

Quantum computing is at an inflection point in terms of funding, research and experimentation, Kompella said. “Cisco has played amazing role in developing and building digital infrastructure and quantum is one of those technologies that has a foundational element to it.  Our research is looking for the next big innovation with the aim to create new product offerings for Cisco,” Kompella said.

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