The internet's skeleton

Anthony McLachlan/Ciena

One of the biggest movements in the enterprise technology sector in recent years has been the shift to cloud computing. While individuals might feel familiar with the term the cloud, little day-to-day attention is given to what’s powering it; no one seem to care much of the inner working of the cloud which seems to be taken for granted. This is a similar story where submarine cables are concerned.

Modern day pressures

Networks need to be able to scale and adjust in real time in response to surging – and often unpredictable – traffic demands to satisfy the vast and ever-growing data appetite of the online world. Maxing-out cable capability is not an option. It is simply unthinkable to imagine global internet users ever being told things are now as good as they are ever going to get, but there are limits of what can be achieved and delivered within the constraints of any given technology.

Until the next genuine step-change in technological development, the emphasis will have to be on maximizing the capabilities of the technology we have today. Accomplishing this are smart networks that can process and prioritize, reacting and adapting to changing requirements as bandwidth demands evolve. At the heart of achieving this is real-time data, which feeds into network algorithms to help providers gain greater visibility and programmability to cope with exploding bandwidth needs. This network intelligence is every bit as vital in submarine cables as it would be within a data center or corporate networking environment.

The future of submarine cable development

Just a few decades ago, approximately half of all internet-related data was being carried by satellite network; but now, upwards of 99% of all inter-continental traffic is sent over submarine cable networks. The reason for this is simply a need for speed. Satellite networks simply cannot scale to the information-carrying capacity and associated cost points. Therefore, today they primarily serve remote regions of the world that are not currently hooked up to the global submarine network, such as small islands in the Pacific Ocean.

The combined pressures of the demand for advanced, high-bandwidth services, and the preference for cable over satellite means there must be increased investment in both cables and their underlying technology.

The APAC region’s bandwidth was recently given a significant boost with the completion of the Asia Pacific Gateway (APG) submarine cable, which boasts a theoretical capacity of tends of terabits per second. The Southeast Asia-Japan Cable (SJC), which went live three years ago, also carries tens of terabits per second between Japan with China, Brunei, Singapore, and the Philippines. Another trend is corporate giants who have built their businesses on the internet investing in new transpacific cables because they have the incentive and capital to do so.

Between now and 2020 it is highly likely other submarine cable investments will be announced, too, further increasing capacity and bandwidth, and – more importantly – making the business of communications more stable, more agile, and better able to support continued demand from businesses and consumers.

Innovations to get the most out of submarine cables

As for the underlying technologies, there are already a number of key developments in this field that promise to bear significant fruit. Through research and innovation, we are able to get more out of existing cables, which when combined with new investment projects helps operators prepare for future subsea traffic growth. For example, next-generation optical chipsets will deliver an improved combination of scale, automation, capacity, and intelligence, all of which are the foundations for the creation of self-driving networks.

A self-managing network with the intelligence and programmability to monitor, control and respond in real-time to meet user demands, could result in as much as double the current channel capacity as well as significantly reduced cost-per-bit charges. Such a system would also be able to match capacity to system margin across a broad range of applications, as well as facilitate further developments allowing for data collection across the network and big data analysis, turning the vast amount of available data in the network into actionable insights.

Lower cost, faster, higher capacity, and more reliable submarine network-facilitated connections are going to become the order of the day, allowing information to be shared more swiftly and comprehensively, making the world more connected than ever. Consumers and businesses alike will notice the benefits this will bring. Will this make them any more likely to have an increased awareness of the cables they rely upon so heavily? That is far less likely; more likely, they’ll continue to simply expect their internet experience to be easy.

Anthony McLachlan is vice president and general manager for Asia Pacific at Ciena.

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