Agilent Raises the Optical Bar

SAN MATEO (03/10/2000) - LOOKING TO IMPROVE the viability of optical networking, Agilent Technologies Inc. this week introduced a platform that allows voice, video, and data to be switched as optical signals without converting them from photons to electrons.

The switch platform, unveiled at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference in Baltimore, is designed to help improve the provisioning and management of wavelengths across networks and to speed networking equipment vendors' time to market with optical devices, company officials said.

"Today, there is enormous capacity between network nodes but no good switching technology to switch traffic off one wavelength on fiber onto another wavelength. That's where this technology comes in," said John O'Rourke, general manger of optical networking at Agilent.

The technology will enable efficient construction of the "Internet backbone of the future," O'Rourke said.

Working in combination with other optical technologies such as DWDM (dense wave division multiplexing), Agilent's Photonic Switching Platform consists of two photonic switches that redirect light pulses without the use of mirrors. Inside the switches are a vertical and horizontal set of aligned wave guides, which direct light down a vertical path to a switched port, Agilent officials said.

According to one analyst, current switches used in optical networks employ traditional electronic components to convert optical signals to electronic signals then back to optical signals.

The key benefit of the Photonic Switching Platform is that it is a purely optical switch, which enables the electronic conversion process to be bypassed.

"One of the nice things this does is it makes [the switch] speed independent -- the switch doesn't care if you are running OC48, OC192, or faster," said Analyst Dave Passmore, a research director at the Burton Group, in Sterling, Va. "Because, to the switch, it is just a beam of light. It doesn't have to go to the trouble of converting it to bits and back to light after it switches.

That's a big deal."

The technology will provide the switching core in the construction of optical equipment such as optical cross-connects and add/drop multiplexers.

"This [technology] promises to reduce complexity and improve performance because the speed of the network is no longer limited by the electronics of the switch," Passmore said.

"We are still a year away from this, but it is certainly indicative of what's coming," Passmore said.

Agilent officials said the company will sell the technology to networking product vendors and commercial prototypes of the platform will be available by the end of the year.

Paris-based networking giant Alcatel confirmed it is currently developing optical switching elements based on Agilent's technology.

This revelation, in combination with its recent acquisition of Newbridge Networks, promises to strengthen Alcatel's competitive foothold in the North American networking marketplace and positions the company well against networking players such as Cisco, Lucent, and Nortel.

Agilent Technologies Inc., in Palo Alto, Calif., is at www.agilent.com.

Eyeing all-optical networks

Agilent's Photonic Switching Platform provides switching for the following optical equipment types.

* Optical cross-connects

* Add/drop multiplexers

* Optical protection switch modules

* Wavelength managers

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