Windstream, Infinera want to make optical slicing a reality by 2023

Anyone remotely familiar with the wireless industry will have heard of network slicing by now. Windstream and Infinera are working to bring the same concept to optical networks by upcycling old ROADM equipment to create a next generation technology called Node-on-a-Blade. Executives from both companies pitched this technology as key for enabling proliferation of edge computing and future 5G use cases.

For more than a decade, ROADMs have served as the highway interchanges of fiber optic networks, allowing light signals to be rerouted along different pathways without interruption. Art Nichols, Windstream VP of Architecture and Technology, told Fierce the idea behind Node-on-a-Blade is to drive down the size and cost of these interchanges and add new telemetry points inside them to provide much deeper insight into network performance. This will enable a company like Windstream to sell slices of its network and expose the performance of the underlying optical infrastructure to customers in a way that’s not possible today.

“The challenge historically with things like spectrum offerings has been how do I know what the performance is? Is the performance degrading over time? How do I know if my optics aren’t performing appropriately? If there’s a fiber cut, how do I know what the impact is?” Nichols explained. “If you’re not exposing that performance at Layer 0 then the purchaser is reliant entirely on the fiber optic provider to take care of all of those things. In this environment, the consumer of the managed spectrum service has that visibility themselves.”

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Robert Shore, SVP of Marketing at Infinera, noted the rise of technologies like edge computing and 5G is driving the need for this type of technology. While it may have previously been more economical for hyperscalers to build their own fiber infrastructure between a small number of data centers, as they strive to push compute functionality closer to the edge they’re now looking for ways to connect 30, 40 or even 50 locations.

“Building a fiber infrastructure from scratch, which is what these people would have to do, is crazy hard,” he said. “What this service enables them to do is essentially have their own virtual private optical network without having to lift a single shovel…they essentially have a virtual fiber then they put whatever optics they want [on it].”

Nichols said Node-on-a-Blade doesn’t exist as a generally available product today. To create it, Infinera and Windstream plan to take the existing wavelength selective switch (WSS) that’s in ROADM devices today and partition it into four sections, he added.

While the technology is still in development, Nichols said it expects validation efforts will begin by the end of this year. Field deployments will start next year.

“We’re planning on this being a sort of cornerstone of a large initiative that really begins to scale up in 2023,” he said. “This is sort of key to our plans and key to our 6,000 node expansion or modernization across the entirety of our footprint that we’re going to out of the gate enable these types of novel services and all the goodness of core functionality pushed out to the edge.”