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To 400G and beyond: the arrival of adaptive networks and the next technology boom

Apr 12, 20184 mins
NetworkingVirtual Reality

The Internet of Things, virtual and augmented reality, and 4k-based video streaming have moved from dreams to reality. The network foundation that has brought these applications to life needs to continue to adapt, running more efficiently and responsively, to bring the next generation of revolutionary technologies to fruition.

virtual reality augmented reality headgear
Credit: Getty Images

We live in a world in which we’re regularly streaming Netflix in 4K, using the power of the phones in our pockets to augment our realities with virtual gaming, and even watching basketball from a virtual courtside seat. Our networks have evolved to cater for these technologies, and each evolutionary step has brought with it a technological boom enabled by greater capacity, speed, automation, intelligence and programmability.

The next step has arrived and it’s just in time, because when you thought we were finally content with, well, content, new technologies have emerged that push beyond what we ever thought possible.

At the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show (CES), Intel Studios unveiled what it’s calling Volumetric Video – and it’s nothing short of stunning. Volumetric Video uses multiple cameras to shoot a 360-degree field of view, but it differs from standard 360-degree or VR video in that it captures footage “from the outside in”. To picture how it works, visualize the action scenes from The Matrix, in which the cameras pan around a frozen-in-mid-air Keanu Reeves. But now imagine being a viewer with the ability to zoom in on any part of that scene or look at any part of the footage from any angle you want, at any point in the action sequence.

Thankfully 400G has arrived and will enable the kind of bandwidth and compute needed for such a revolutionary technology. It’s easy to forget that just 10 years ago, we’d hit the limit of what we could do with simple direct detection of 40G waves. Fortunately, Coherent Detection provide the breakthrough that allowed the world to re-think what the network was capable of.

Future-proofing the network edge

Today the edge of the network is rapidly moving from single Gigabit speeds to 10, 25 and even 100G rates. Carriers are beginning the densification of the fiber at the network edge needed to build the 5G infrastructure that will support the Internet of things and network cores are becoming flexible and programmable.

We’ve watched the world become dependent on smartphones and tablets for everyday work and leisure, and the capabilities of those devices drive an ever-increasing need for data. We now live in an app-driven world allowing us to consume Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and 4K content regularly. Through the power of opening the network we’ve watched the world innovate and drive more connectivity across more industries than ever before. Once an industry gets “on-net” and becomes both smart and connected, the innovations accelerate, driving even more demand onto the network. This virtuous cycle, where connectivity drives innovation, which drives consumption, which drives further connectivity, shows no sign of slowing from the demand side.

We’re now well along with 400G in commercial use and we have 600G, 800G and even more around the corner. Along with the rapidly increasing data rates, it is the software in our networks that is ever increasing in importance. It is what allows our networks to adapt to the needs of network operators. It is what enables the convergence of network analytics and intelligence. It is the software control and automation that enables a programmable infrastructure. Operators can now ramp network services up or down with the click of a mouse – and with the use of artificial intelligence and software, the network can even adjust itself.

Unshackled innovation

The shackles that held innovation back in a networking sense a decade ago are now gone, and you’re about to see a new technology boom.

In the near future it’s conceivable that you could be enjoying a 4K-based, AR enhanced, streaming video while sitting in your self-driving car. Or you could even be watching and interacting with a Volumetric film as you sit onboard a high-speed train.

Smart cities can now take the leap from a series of connected but disparate devices and services, to one in which they both connect and inform each other and are able to react to each other’s conditions. Let’s say a traffic light is out on the main street of a city. The smart city can alert public safety agencies of congested areas and re-direct emergency vehicles along less-congested routes. Other connected cars will also be alerted and advised to automatically avoid the congested areas to avoid any approaching emergency vehicles – all without the passenger having to lift a finger.

This is all on the horizon, but it’s a horizon that’s becoming within reach because we’ve set the stage for more adaptive networks that foster innovation and enable us to deliver more advanced services. Volumetric, VR, AR, 4K, 8K, 16K: consider these revolutionary next steps because there’s bound to be more where they came from as the new, adaptive network gives us the freedom to imagine beyond tomorrow.


With more than 20 years of telecom experience, Mr. Alexander is currently serving as Ciena’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. Mr. Alexander has held a number of positions since joining the Company in 1994, including General Manager of Ciena's Transport & Switching and Data Networking business units, Vice President of Transport Products and Director of Lightwave Systems.

From 1982 until joining Ciena, Mr. Alexander was employed at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, where he last held the position of Assistant Leader of the Optical Communications Technology Group. Mr. Alexander is an IEEE Fellow and was the recipient of the IEEE Communications Society Industrial Innovation Award in 2012. He is currently an Associate Editor for the IEEE / OSA Journal of Optical Communications and Networking. He has served as a member of the Federal Communications Commission Technological Advisory Council, as an Associate Editor for the Journal of Lightwave Technology, as a member of the IEEE / LEOS Board of Governors, and was a General Chair of the conference on Optical Fiber Communication (OFC) in 1997.

Mr. Alexander received both his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has been granted 18 patents and has authored a text on Optical Communication Receiver Design as well as numerous conference and journal articles.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Steve Alexander and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.