It's no secret the all-optical-switch market has yet to materialize, leaving the plethora of vendors in the space with two choices: close up shop or find new uses for their optical-switching technology in the interim. Count startup Continuum Photonics (Billerica, MA) among the latter. At OFC in February, the company unveiled a new line of instrumentation-grade (IG) optical switches targeted at what it calls the optical automation systems (OAS) market, which could be worth a half-billion dollars by 2008, say company representatives.
The DirectLight IG series collapses three traditionally discrete boxes into one, including an optical switch, a variable optical attenuator (VOA), and an optical power monitor. Both the DirectLight IG 3200 (32 ports) and the DirectLight IG 6400 (64 ports) chassis are fully transparent to bit rate and protocol and feature a typical insertion loss of <1.4 dB.
"We also have extremely high repeatability," adds Continuum's marketing and business development vice president, Aaron Bent. "The only switches that have been able to get this kind of repeatability are the very expensive instrumentation switches from folks like JDS Uniphase and DiCon [Fibreoptics], which use stepper motors." The DirectLight IG series is four to six times less expensive than traditional switches, he says, and considerably smaller. Competitive devices often require a lab crane to be moved, but the IG 3200 can be tucked under the arm.
While most optical switches use three-dimensional MEMS technology, the DirectLight series is based on beam-steering technology. Continuum has adapted beam-steering—commonly used in cell phones and pagers—for telecommunications applications by integrating piezoelectric actuators with MEMS structures. "With piezoelectrics, you can create about 10,000 times the force of electrostatics used in MEMS mirrors," explains Bent. "As a result, we can move optical elements around very accurately and deterministically."
However accurate Continuum's beam-steering approach may be, the company will still need to educate its customers about the difference between its technology and 3D MEMS. The fact that 3D MEMS carries such negative baggage could be something of a double-edged sword for Continuum, notes Sterling Perrin, senior research analyst, optical networks, at IDC (Framingham, MA). "On one hand, it opens the door for a new approach like [beam-steering]. On the other hand, a lot of companies are skeptical about all-optical switching in general because of the reliability issues that the 3D MEMS approaches had. [Beam-steering] will have to work as advertised, which, of course, remains to be seen."
Continuum Photonics nevertheless has high hopes for the OAS market, which the company divides into three distinct segments: manufacturing test automation, system verification test (SVT)/network design and verification, and network monitoring.
Bent cites a fundamental shift in customer spending to increase capital efficiency. Today's customers are looking for centralization of equipment pools and tests, greater equipment and personnel utilization, simplification in terms of hardware and software tools, and increased automation to drive down component and subsystem costs. Bent reports strong interest in Continuum's switches for the manufacturing test and SVT applications today, but is this really a market that could eventually net a half-billion dollars?
"We see this as an opportunity certainly in the interim before the telecom applications emerge," reports IDC's Perrin. "Frankly, it could be a bigger opportunity than telecom itself for a while, because it does sell into both the service-provider market and the enterprise market."
According to Perrin, Continuum is not the first all-optical-switch startup to target the non-telecom space; both GlimmerGlass and Calient Networks are also actively pursuing the instrumentation market once cornered by JDS Uniphase, Apcon, and DiCon. But Perrin believes the folks at Continuum "have done the most advanced look at this market and are probably the furthest along in assessing the opportunity and getting into these emerging applications."
Continuum is already moving ahead with production of its telco DirectLight TL series—designed for integration into multiservice provisioning platforms, WDM transport, and core grooming switches—and its fiber distribution DirectLight FD series, which Bent describes as a "low-cost patch panel."