Is It Time for the Data Center to See the Light?

Optical cabling is on the rise in the data center. What challenges will fiber bring to the enterprise?

By Arthur Cole | Posted Jan 5, 2015
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Amid all the bold predictions about what is going to happen with enterprise networking in the coming year, little attention is being paid to the use of more fiber in the data center.

Indeed, as ENP pointed out a few weeks ago, it seems that copper cabling still has a long shelf life as groups like the Ethernet Alliance devise multiple formats to improve flexibility and introduce new levels of service without rewiring the entire data environment.

Optical cable in the data center

But deployment of active optical cable (AOC) is on the rise in the data center nonetheless and is expected to maintain an upward trajectory in the coming years. According to market research firm LightCounting, 10 GbE SFP+ AOCs now accounts for a quarter of the overall market, driven primarily by substantial growth in the data center over the past decade or so. Going forward, throughput exceeding 100 G and even 400 G, along with core switching interconnectivity, is expected to push today’s $100 million market to more than $260 million by the end of the decade.

Another factor to consider is SDN, says Infoworld’s Howard Baldwin. The Open Networking Foundation is working on ways to standardize SDN for the optical layer, largely in response to the fact that multiple vendors are already crafting their own solutions. Those close to the effort, in fact, say that the difficulty is not porting SDN to an optical infrastructure but making sure it maintains compatibility with copper plant without sacrificing the flexibility and dynamic management capabilities that the enterprise is counting on.

Fiber and the cloud

Of course, optical networks will play a key role in the cloud, but not merely to maintain connectivity between local and remote data centers. According to Infinera Corp.’s Vinay Rathore, the goal is to provide broad connectivity for the distributed data environment, no matter where it exists. The popular image of the cloud is of a network of large, regional data facilities offering multiple petabytes of service to a diverse customer base, but there will also be a fair amount of infrastructure pushed closer to the end user in order to facilitate access to critical data. In these cases, high-speed optical links will be needed to provide rapid and low-cost exchanges between processing and storage centers in support of the fully virtualized data center.

What's coming for fiber in the data center

Enterprises that deploy fiber in the coming years face more than a technological hurdle, however. Few data center managers have real-world experience with fiber, and it isn’t always easy to tell if the proper conditions are being maintained. New testing systems like EXFO’s iCERT can help in this regard. The software provides pre-defined test configurations with the latest industry-standard pass/fail thresholds, allowing new plant to be deployed with no chance of manual error or misinterpretation of increasingly complex benchmarks. It also provides dynamic definition of test parameters in order to select the optimum number of acquisitions to ensure top-notch assessment and component evaluation.

An all-optical data center is still not in the cards for the foreseeable future, save for the most advanced HPC facilities, but enterprise executives will undoubtedly view optical cabling as a convenient alternative to copper as data loads and overall network complexity increases in the era of cloud computing and Big Data.

When latency measured in milliseconds can result in a million dollar loss, it will be hard to argue against data that travels at the speed of light.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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