Optical networks for the IoT generation

John C. Tanner
24 Mar 2014

After years and years of hype and promise, the Internet of Things (IoT) is now a thing. And very much so. As Telecom Asiareported in February, analyst firm Gartner forecasts IoT to have an installed base of 26 billion units in 2020, with products and services valued at $300 billion. The connectivity component alone - which does not include smartphones and tablets - will generate $13.5 billion in three years as connectivity increasingly becomes a standard feature for everything from home appliances and wristwatches to dog collars and t-shirts.

If anything, Gartner is low-balling that figure, says Cisco Systems chief John Chambers, who declared at February's Mobile World Congress that IoT will be a $19 trillion business in the next ten years (see sidebar, "Everything is connected").

Operators are looking at IoT not only from a revenue-generation perspective, but also from a traffic-driver perspective. Which is ironic, because five years ago, "IoT" meant mainly machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, which meant low-bandwidth apps like smart meters, vending machine monitors and telematics. That's no longer the case, says Stephen Patak, Cisco's MD for service providers (Asia Pacific, Greater China and Japan).

"With the massive growth of IP, cloud, video and mobile traffic combined with sensor and machine-driven traffic coming on line faster than any other category of connected devices, bandwidth alone is no longer enough to support the Internet of Everything [IoE] where people, processes, data and devices are interacting 24x7," he says. "With billions of programmable devices that are already on-line and the continued growth of new events resulting from the interaction of these programmable devices, the network will need to do much more than what it is doing today."

And that doesn't just mean upgrading RAN links to LTE or LTE-Advanced, he adds. "In general, we are talking about the entire network and not just a specific segment. Today's existing networks have come a long way, but need to evolve further where new technologies will be introduced to change how new services are enabled and deployed. As the IoE builds out, the network's role in supporting, managing and controlling these programmable device driven events becomes critical and must evolve to support new levels of virtualization, programmability and performance."

Put simply, the entire network must brace itself for the IoT deluge, especially the optical network, because today's optical architectures aren't really prepared for the new traffic demands that IoT will place on them. Keywords: flexibility and programmability.

From houses to apps

To understand just how drastic a change optical networks have to undergo, it's helpful to look at the context in which they were originally designed and have evolved to date.

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