Here come the micro-opticals

Optical components business is finally growing up. After the first few years when every little started to craft its own version of optical gear, there is a handful of companies that are taking the ‘chip’ approach to optics and optical subsystems. First there was Parama, which has developed an “ADM on a chip.” (ADM stands for Add Drop Multiplexer) and now today Infinera has finally taken off the wraps on its “WDM on a chip.” (WDM stands for Wavelength Division Multiplexing.) There is Galazar lurking around somewhere as well. In isolation, these two developments don’t really mean anything. However taken together, these “chips” are now going to make the two basic pillars of optical business cheaper and easier to deal with.

bq. “Photonic integration has long been a goal of the optical communications industry, but its difficulty has thwarted many excellent design teams from even considering an attempt,” said Michael Howard, Principal Analyst at Infonetics Research.

I had written about the ramifications of these developments, almost two years back, called the Light Brigade. (It was on the cover, though sadly the new management has mucked up the entire website and there are no permalinks to the story.) Vinod Khosla at KPCB had turned me on to the story, while Jagdeep who I had written about helped pave the way for the story, which eventually ended up on the cover. Anyway I was convinced that this was an industry shaking, economics changing concept, if it worked. I saw the company work its way through many of the problems and till today, when it has emerged as a one of the first with “optical chips.”

bq. Infinera announced today two key technology breakthroughs: the first large scale Photonic Integrated Circuits, and the first Digital Optical Networking System, the Infinera DTN.  Photonic Integrated Circuits are similar to electronic integrated circuits, but these new photonic chips generate, manipulate, and detect light rather than electrons. Jagdeep Singh, Infinera’s CEO says,  “Performing all these functions in simple digital electronics rather than in a host of analog optical components greatly simplifies the optical layer and resonates with our customers.”

bq. “It comes as a surprise to many people that much of the existing optical network is analog,” said Scott Clavenna, Chief Analyst at Heavy Reading. “After all, every other network that carriers run has transitioned from analog to digital: the voice network in the 1960s, the mobile wireless networks more recently, and even video delivery networks.  How ironic that these digital services are transported by an optical layer where waves, not bits, are manipulated by amplifiers, filters, dispersion compensators, and in some cases, mirrors.  Performing key functions digitally, rather than with analog optics, makes perfect sense.” 

You will see this company mutate and bring out more and more products, based on this chip, though you will hear mostly about this from a system’s perspective.

* More on Parama
* More on Infinera from Light Reading

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