Ciena's Routing Push Beefs Up 5G Story

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By: R. Scott Raynovich

At best, 5G has been used as a shotgun marketing approach in the industry, with every chip, equipment, and virtualization software vendor casting a wide net to tell you how 5G will change the world. Ciena this week made some interesting moves that are much more specific and easy to grasp, introducing tactical edge routing products that could reap benefits in the move to 5G networks.

To use a loaded term, 5G will be "disruptive" because it represents a major shift in the architectural approaches to networking at the intersection of mobile networks and the core service-provider networks. To summarize: It requires complex integration of virtualization, optical, and IP routing technologies in order to make sure that demanding real-time mobile networks can support a variety of applications and get networking packets where they need to go as fast as possible.

5G will also be the first edge/mobile technology with a fully virtualized architecture. This lends itself well to optical integration by enabling a blend of reconfigurable optical and routing technologies to slice and dice bandwidth by application on the network, using software. At the same time, there is the push to "Open 5G" -- making 5G more standardized at the edge of the network to further enable integration between traditional IP routing and the optical layer.

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Why is this important? I believe all these trends will further the holy-grail goal of networking: the integration of Layer 3 IP routing and the optical layer. In the long run, this has the potential to further commoditize IP routing technologies and strengthen the players that have the best optical and integration stories. That could be a boon to Ciena, which now appears to have all the pieces in place for virtualization, optical, and IP routing.

Multiple Edge Routers Announced

This week Ciena announced "5G-optimized routers" targeted at low-latency, high-performance applications for 5G. These include the new 5168, 5166, and 5164 routers with what Ciena calls "Adaptive IP," its approach to linking together IP routing over optical circuits. Ciena is targeting the "xHaul" - both the fronthaul and backhaul areas of the edge, where mobile networks collect traffic from the Radio Access Network (RAN) and then route that traffic at aggregation points into the core optical networks.

The most important feature of these routers is that they will enable network operators to implement virtual circuits by network application -- known as network slicing -- so that separate bandwidth channels can be dynamically assigned by applications based on latency and bandwidth needs, using both the IP and optical layers of the network. We have yet to see what the "killer app" is on 5G networks, but we do know that a wide range of new applications are coming online -- such as connected vehicles, real-time data analytics, gaming, and virtual reality. These new applications have a more demanding need for low latency and real-time connectivity.

Optical IP Integration Differentiation

Of course, Ciena isn't the only communications equipment vendor working to this end. Nokia has a solid optical and IP integration story with a strong optical portfolio, software-based orchestration in the Network Services Platform (NSP), one of the best IP services routers in the 7750, as well as virtualization software from Nuage Networks. Nokia just announced it is buying small optical chip company Elenion to build on its optical integration portfolio. Cisco, which of course has a large IP routing and optical portfolio, is now pushing into vertical integration of optical at the edge with the unveiling of the Silicon One Application Specific Integrated Circuit (ASIC) and its buying binge of optical suppliers Acacia and Luxtera. All of this points to deeper integration of optical and IP routing technologies. Ericsson has an IP/optical integration story, but it relies heavily on a partnership with Cisco on the IP routing side, which seems to be sputtering at best. We don't hear much about that anymore.

Even smaller players such as ADVA Optical are getting into the game at the edge. ADVA has done a great job integrating the virtualization technology it acquired when it bought Overture Networks in 2016 to deliver virtualization of optical circuits and at the edge, and its moves here have been proving prescient. But ADVA isn't a major player in IP routing.

One of the key assets going forward for Ciena is its Blue Planet virtualized orchestration software, which can be used to configure and manage all of its optical and networking pieces. As we move forward into the 5G edge deployment, having a strong software management story will be key, and Blue Planet makes Ciena's approach succinct and easy to understand.

Though doubts persist about the timing and size of the 5G edge deployment, 5G will be crucial technology that differentiates the largest communications equipment and software players. How they blend a combination of optical platforms, IP routing, and virtualization technology will separate the field for years to come. Ciena's most recent product announcements beef up its routing portfolio, strengthening its story in IP/optical integration.