Lucent announces first all-optical MEMS-based transport device

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It's a, a, it's a switch...or maybe all three. Lucent Technologies' (Murray Hill, NJ) WaveStar LambdaRouter was the talk of the industry when it was unveiled a few weeks ago, and although many argued about the label, no one has argued the technological value this product brings to the all-optical network era.

The LambdaRouter, based on relatively new optical micro-electromechanical systems (MEMS) technology, uses a series of microscopic mirrors, currently up to 256, to direct and route optical signals from fiber to fiber in the optical network. The key breakthrough is that those signals are passed from fiber to fiber without the need for the electrical conversion required by traditional equipment. According to Lucent, it will save service providers up to 25% in operational costs and enable them to direct network traffic 16 times faster than using electrical-switching equipment. Th Acf38d

Each mirror in Lucent's Wave-Star LambdaRouter is capable of moving on two axes to provide intricate adjustments in connecting wavelengths from fiber to fiber.

The impact of MEMS-based photonic equipment such as the LambdaRouter on the telecommunications industry is significant. Global consumption of photonic switches and switch matrices will rise dramatically from $119.1 million in 1998 to $4.11 billion in 2008, according to a recent market report from Electroni Cast Corp., a CA-based industry forecast and analysis company. The main driver is the expansion of fiber-optic transport and access networks, deploying emerging technologies like optomechanical switching.

The breakthrough related to optomechanical switching is the batch-processed MEMS switches, notes the ElectroniCast report. They have the characteristics to strongly affect the cost and size of both simple as well as large matrix photonic-switching fabrics. There is also a split between what products will be offered by large telecommunications suppliers and the smaller MEMS process technology startups.

"The large telecommunications equipment suppliers will produce and use medium and large MEMS-based matrix switches tailored to their own needs," says ElectroniCast president Stephen Montgomery in the report. "The smaller startups will produce simpler conventional 1x2, 2x2, 1xN, and some small matrix switches that will be low-cost replacements for the bulk optomechanical switches currently being used. Over time, the technical expertise and applications knowledge of the smaller companies will allow them to offer more complex products."

With the LambdaRouter, Lucent is wasting little time in jumping into the large matrix product category. With an array of 256 tilting mirrors, an individual wavelength can be passed to any of 256 input or output fibers. All 256 mirrors are fabricated on less than one square inch of silicon. Lucent says this compact switching fabric provides more than 32 times greater switching density than today's electronic fabrics. With no electrical conversion required, the LambdaRouter also boasts up to a 100-fold reduction in power consumption over electronic fabric solutions. The system supports wavelengths at speeds up to 40 Gbits/sec, and by adding circuit packs, the LambdaRouter will support upgrades to even higher capacities.

Current Analysis (Sterling, VA) believes the impact of Lucent's Lambda Router on the telecommunications industry is very significant. Still, to understand the product's current and future value, Chris Nicoll, principle analyst with Current Analysis says it's important to clarify what the LambdaRouter does and does not do.

"The LambdaRouter takes an individual wavelength from one fiber and switches that signal to another fiber, period," says Nicoll. "The router needs an optical multiplexing and demultiplexing system to actually take the DWDM [dense wavelength-division multiplexing] signal and split each wavelength onto an individual fiber that is aimed at a microscopic mirror that will bounce that signal onto another fiber and out of the system. The current signal loss lies in the range of 6 to 8 dB, but this should improve by the time the product is available in mid-2000. No color conversion is performed or other multiplexing functions."

Still, the biggest concern in the announcement of this product that even Current Analysis says will "open up a number of potential market opportunities" and present service providers with new implications--both near- and long-term in constructing their networks--apparently lies in Lucent's selection of a name.

"Lucent is certain to cause confusion by calling the LambdaRouter a router instead of calling it what it really is--an optical crossconnect [OXC]," says Nicoll. "Lucent is the first of the major optical vendors to announce an OXC that uses microscopic mirrors to switch wavelengths, but this is not as sexy or potentially as attention-grabbing as labeling the system a 'router.' Router sounds more impressive than OXC, but this is a poor marketing move on Lucent's part."

Kathy Szelag, vice president for marketing in Lucent's optical-networking group, explains how the company settled on LambdaRouter. "We decided to call the WaveStar LambdaRouter an all-optical router rather than a crossconnect because it is more intelligent than a standard crossconnect," says Szelag. "We are offering our WaveWrapper functionality with the system as an option. With WaveWrapper, the system can be used to automatically route wavelengths from fiber to fiber, which crossconnects cannot do. Hence the name."

Nicoll agrees with the strategy of applying the WaveWrapper technology and identifying the routing and quality-of-service requirements of a particular optical channel to the LambdaRouter.

"If the intelligence to process the WaveWrapper information is added to the LambdaRouter," says Nicoll, "then the product would live up to its name and its potential."

Lucent first demonstrated its MEMS technology, dubbed MicroStar, at October's Telecom '99 show in Geneva and plans to take it from lab to market in 15 months. The first release of the WaveStar LambdaRouter to select customers is scheduled for July. The system is expected for commercial availability by next December.

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