Forget Terabit networks; new multicore fibers could signal the Petabit age

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Some interesting experiments in fiber optics could dramatically improve the data rates of our backbone internet networks. Researchers at the University of Bristol in the U.K. and the National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT) in Japan said on Tuesday that they have successfully demonstrated a multicore fiber network controlled via software-defined networking (SDN).

Fiber strands today are essentially single tubes of glass, or cores, that carry visible light between nodes. Multicore fiber is exactly what its name implies: multiple cores each carrying a single core’s worth of capacity over the same link. By interleaving as many cores in rings, optical researchers have been able to build some truly powerful test networks.

In Japan, a group led by NTT recently built a 450 km (280 mile) section of fiber using 12 cores in two rings capable of transmitting 409 Tb/s in either direction. That’s 818 Tb/s in total – within spitting distance of seemingly mythical Petabit speeds. What the Bristol-NICT group has accomplished is creating a software-based control element that can manage those enormous capacities.

As my colleague Stacey Higginbotham wrote last year, fiber networks are becoming programmable, allowing carriers to adjust the capacity and latency to meet the needs of traffic traveling over it. Using OpenFlow protocols, the Bristol-NICT group was able to configure the nodes of the network to support different types of applications. According to the researchers, this was the first use of SDN on a multicore network and could eventually be used for global cloud computing.

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