Vendors: Would you believe enterprise WDM?

Vendors: Would you believe enterprise WDM?

By STEPHEN HARDY

While the debate continues over the role of dense wavelength-division multiplexing (dense WDM) in metro politan-area networks (see related story on page 1), some WDM vendors have already turned their attention to even smaller infrastructures. Citing the march of fiber across campuses, into buildings, and to the desktop, a handful of companies have announced products that will bring WDM capabilities to the enterprise.

At first blush, such a product line might seem the apex of wishful thinking. Even those in the market recognize their position on the bleeding edge of fiber-optic applications.

"This market is very small at the moment," admits Brian McCann, president of ADVA Optical Networking (Ramsey, NJ). ADVA has a 4-channel fixed WDM system, called Abraxas, for point-to-point enterprise backbone applications. "My personal assess ment is that this market is less than $10 million--which is basically nothing in the world of WDM."

The market may be "basically nothing," but ADVA doesn`t have it all to itself. For example, Alloptic (Davis, CA) introduced its Wave-Router enterprise WDM product at the recent OFC show in San Diego, CA. A source at Lucent Technologies (Holmdel, NJ) predicted that 25% of the revenue the company derives from sales of its new AllWave Metro WDM product line will come from enterprise applications. Nortel Networks (Brampton, ON, Canada) has touted its OPTera in this space. Meanwhile, NBase-Xyplex (Littleton, MA) released a WDM module at the beginning of this year for its GFS3012 Switch Router that will combine four Gigabit Ethernet streams into a single channel for enterprise networks. Finally, IBM`s 9729 Optical Wavelength Division Multiplexer, aimed at data-driven applications such as Escon links, also can be considered in this context.

At least some of these companies hope to be the first firms in line when the initial wave of enterprise optical backbones reaches fiber exhaust. However, several factors will have to fall into place before such a market becomes significant. For example, one could imagine that a major network user with high bandwidth requirements might link its buildings, either across campus or across town, with fiber runs it acquired from the local telephone company. Both ADVA and IBM, for example, have targeted data centers, such as banks and other financial institutions, that have put such networks in place using dark fiber to meet their high-capacity transmission requirements. The problem with this scenario, obviously, is the availability of dark fiber.

"In Germany in particular, dark fiber is relatively good with availability," says McCann, whose company was founded in Germany and controls most of the European market for such applications. "The carriers will offer it, and the data centers were smart enough to get it when they could. In the U.S., there are specific markets like New York where some of the big companies have muscled their way to get dark fibers--but for the most part it`s not as readily available."

The fact that current usage indicates that most of enterprise and campus backbones--regardless of their origin--have little to fear from fiber exhaust also has slowed the start of the enterprise WDM market. "The other thing that we`ve been disappointed in is the migration of Gigabit Ethernet in the campus," McCann reports. "Is it being used? Sure, but is it being used in such massive quantities that people need to deploy multiple Gigabit Ethernets point to point? Other than if you`re a stock exchange or perhaps a software processing company, like a Microsoft or something, running four or eight or 12 Gigabit Ethernets over a common fiber backbone--there really isn`t a major deployment of that."

The other major hurdle is price. For example, the Abraxas sells for about $20,000. "My personal opinion is that product is five times too expensive," McCann says. "Until we can achieve something in the range of $1000 per channel, the true LAN/campus market is not going to be massive." Until WDM prices get beneath the economic threshold of pain, users will turn to Gigabit Ethernet, Asynchronous Transfer Mode, or even laying new fiber as more economical alternatives for capacity expansion, McCann believes.

That`s not to say that no one is using WDM in enterprise applications already. McCann reports his company has achieved a small level of success targeting applications where fiber exhaust is a reality and companies require a short-term solution, either because they are planning to move or the preferred solution is temporarily unavailable.

Still, McCann and his competitors continue to envision a day when WDM in the enterprise won`t seem so far fetched. "If you look at Gigabit Ethernet, they`re already starting to question what do I do beyond 1 gig--how do I get to 10 gig?" he says. "And WDM is a pretty good solution there." Like the desire for 10-Gbit/sec Ethernet, WDM in the enterprise could easily be seen as the technology of the future. The question is how distant that future will be. q

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