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Passive optical networking: Its day is dawning

Passive optical networking: Its day is dawning

As bandwidth demands continue to increase and with copper cabling having distance shortcomings, passive optical networks looks like an alternative that can solve a number of problems

Credit: Dreamstime

The concept of using passive optical LANs in enterprise campuses has been around for years, but hasn’t taken off taken off because most businesses consider all-fibre networks to be overkill for their needs.

I’ve followed this market for the better part of two decades, and now I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing POL go mainstream, starting in certain verticals.

The primary driver of change from copper to optical is that the demands on the network have evolved. Every company now considers its network to be business critical where just a few years ago, it was considered best effort in nature.

Downtime or a congested network meant inconvenienced users, but today they mean the business is likely losing big money.

There are also a number of new trends driving the evolution of the campus network.  These include:

  • Cloud services: The cloud is certainly the way of the future but it’s playing havoc with enterprise networks. As data centres evolved to modernised systems, East-West traffic was superseded by North-South. Today, businesses are connecting direct to cloud for hybrid cloud deployments driving more North-South traffic. Traditional networks can be a bottleneck
  • Internet of Things (IoT): Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will enable more devices to be connected in more places leading to more bandwidth on the network. For the first time in history, wireless speeds will match wired speeds straining the campus network
  • Video of all kinds is on the rise: Surveillance, collaboration, room systems, streaming and other kinds of video usage are on the rise. Video requires high-quality, low-latency connectivity.

Copper is running out of life

The increased speeds pose quite a predicament for companies. If the organization has Cat5 cabling, the speed is capped at 1Gbps. If Cat6 is deployed, speeds of 10Gbps can be reached but only 55 meter’s distance. If the company wants to reach the full 100M length of copper, Cat6A or higher must be used.

Optical cable has no distance limitations because POL is completely passive and requires no electronics to boost the signal. Optical cabling can carry petabytes of bandwidth over long distances.

Also, with optical, there’s no concern over what type of cable is being used and having the quality degrade over time. Lastly, upgrading speeds is easier. The cabling can stay in place and just the optics get changed out at the ends of the cable making the process simple.

POL is a cheaper, longer lasting than copper upgrades

If businesses are faced with having to upgrade their networks from Cat5 to another type of cabling, it might make sense to look at POL as it can be the foundation for the campus network for years.

The early adopters of POL are companies that are highly distributed with large campuses and need to get more network services in more places. This includes manufacturing organisations, universities, hospitality, cities and airports. Although I’ve highlighted a few verticals, the fact is that any business can take advantage of POL.

POL in a mixed-use development

At a Huawei conference earlier this year the company showcased the Dubai Creek Harbor project being built by Emaar Properties - a six-square-mile development including residences, offices, retail and cultural facilities. The complex is designed to be fully digital and the network has to support IoT, cloud computing, AI-based analytics and more.

The project features an optical network built on Huawei’s Campus OptiX solution that simplifies the network as the architecture moves from a three-tier hierarchical design to a two-tier one. That design uses less equipment and reduces power and cooling requirements.

Also, the flat, 10Gbps network obviates the need for parallel overlay networks, making it easier to manage and giving it a degree of future-proofing as the network can easily be upgraded.

The all-optical network resulted in a 60 per cent improvement in operational efficiency and a deployment time that was cut in half compared a similar network using Ethernet.

Cost effective

Although there are many benefits to POL, adoption has been light. The biggest impediment to its adoption is a general lack of awareness and a misunderstanding of cost.

The actual cost of fibre cabling is higher than copper, but I’ve talked to many companies that have looked at fully loaded costs and often optical is cheaper. Optical isn’t subject to electromagnetic interference like copper is so there’s no need to lay a pipeline down first.

Also, copper cabling requires distribution cabinets to boost the signal and that adds the cost of UPSes, cooling and power that fibre does not.

North American buyers may not have the same awareness of POL as those in China, where:

  • The engineering standard of POL was released in June, outlining the system, design, cabling, testing and acceptance rules
  • An alliance was established Oct. 22 bringing together a number of companies including Nokia, Huawei, and Yangtze Optical Fibre and Cable

Both of these will help drive innovation and standardisation.

Copper has been the preferred campus backbone, but businesses are changing and so is the network. It’s not enough to just change the infrastructure but the cabling that connects everything should be looked at and POL used as a next-generation backbone.


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