An Interview with Brian Lavallée, Senior Director of Solutions Marketing, Ciena

Editor’s Note: The submarine fiber optics market, 2021 arguably was one of the best years in its history.  Undersea cable systems moved rapidly through the pipeline, with new project announcements, supply contract awards, and cables entering service at or near historic levels.

With this backdrop, SubCableWorld had the pleasure to speak with Brian Lavallée, Senior Director of Solutions Marketing, Ciena.  Brian talked about Ciena’s activities in 2021, what we might expect in 2022 (and beyond), Open Cables, and how the pandemic might have accelerated the adoption of new technologies. 

SubCableWorld: What would you point to first among Ciena’s accomplishments in 2021?

Brian Lavallée: I’ll begin with our WaveLogic 5 Extreme, which is a foundation technology of our GeoMesh Extreme submarine network solution.  I call this the “Leader of the Pack” product line.  We began shipping WaveLogic 5 in 2020, and since then we’ve shipped over 25,000 units across all applications, submarine and terrestrial.  That’s a big milestone for us and the industry frantically trying to maintain pace with voracious growth in bandwidth demand. 

WaveLogic 5 was first developed for terrestrial applications, but we optimized the technology for submarine network use.  During 2021, we announced several deals with submarine cable operators who needed more capacity, including Southern Cross, Telxius, Aqua Comms, Angola Cables, and Djibouti Telecom. 

In addition, we came up with the reconfigurable line system (RLS).  It’s a modular approach, which brings with it several advantages.  These optical line systems are being deployed worldwide in some of the more growth-oriented regions like around to world and can be used in submarine terrestrial backhaul.

SubCableWorld: What impact has the pandemic had on technology?

Brian Lavallée: The challenge that a lot of the operators had over the last two years because of the pandemic is how to turn up bandwidth when you need it.  Our coherent modems are open, highly instrumented, and fully programmable.  This means there is a wide range of test capabilities built into our product so you don’t need to have external test sets shipped around the world.  You don’t need to have the highly skilled people travel all over during a pandemic.  Turning up capacity and maintaining and troubleshooting was made far more challenging by the pandemic.  In many regions around the world, it was hard to get into them – visa issues, lockdowns, mandates, etc.  Sometimes you couldn’t get out of your own country; sometimes you couldn’t get back in.  And we’re still living that to an extent, although restrictions seem to be subsiding. 

So having a system that is highly programmable is a critical benefit for submarine cable operators.  They’re able to quickly diagnose existing or impending network issues and proactively address.  In some cases, they’re able to spin up to a higher channel speed on a temporary basis so they can address some of that peak demand and then ramp that capacity back down when the peak subsided.  The programmability and the analytics generated by our highly instrumented networks are also helpful for preventative maintenance, for example.  You may see a transmitter showing signs of impending failure before it occurs.  We’re able to detect this and provide actionable insights to operators so they can decide how to deal with the problem; swap out the card, reroute traffic, balance traffic better across their network, etc. 

SubCableWorld: So did the pandemic speed up the pace of technology?

Brian Lavallée: That whole concept of automation and virtualization was something people were only experimenting and trialing a few years ago, but now it’s become absolutely critical.  If I had to guess, I would say that it probably accelerated the adoption of programmability and instrumentation by a couple of years.  Operators had no choice but to actually try this and they found that it works better than expected and it’s really powerful.  The same can be said for a lot of the digital transformation tools for people who are working at home.  In two years, we probably jumped five years in adoption because we had to.  The same thing is happening in submarine.  It’s not just a matter of turning up more capacity, but how are you managing and maintaining that capacity and ensuring optimal availability. 

SubCableWorld: What are some things to watch for in 2022?

Brian Lavallée: Maintaining pace with the growing bandwidth demand will continue to be an industry focus.  Every cable, old and new ones, have a Shannon Limit – a physical, hard limit from Mother Nature that can’t be exceeded.  We’re already very closer to it.  I like to say we’re “knocking on Shannon’s door”, but you start to see diminishing returns.  You’re not getting these big 300%, 400%, 500% capacity increases that we got in the past. 

Now we’ve seen a new wave of announcements of Spatial Division Multiplexing (SDM) cables.  These cables have a higher fiber count – 12 fiber pairs and some of the vendors are talking about 24 fiber pairs.  That’s a massive amount of capacity.  If you look at Google’s SDM cables, they’re talking about 250 Tbps of traffic.  Those are staggering numbers.

Those wet plants will likely become the de facto wet plant design going forward, especially for the high-capacity routes.  The modems that sit on either end of that cable will continue to advance, but analytics-driven automation will surely become increasingly critical.  There’s a big difference between managing the amount of traffic on four fiber pairs versus 12 or 24 fiber pairs.  Automation is a big part of properly managing high fiber count SDM cables and will become a much bigger part of submarine cable networks just because of the amount of traffic and channels to be managed. 

Another thing to watch for is the growth of the Open Cables concept.  The ITU-T released G977.1 to help with open cable specifications and cable acceptance.  The industry has been operating in a “quasi-open” environment for a decade.  For example, we don’t make wet plants, but we dominate in the SLTE upgrade market.  So how does that work?  We had to characterize a submarine cable and to determine its actual performance.  Then we did our modeling and link engineering to generate a capacity statement showing how much capacity could reliably put into service on the submarine cable, which is built by somebody else, over the end-of-life prescribed by the customer.  This process has worked extremely well for a decade but it could be optimized and this is where the standard comes into play.

Having that ITU-T specification greatly facilitates the process to the point where a submarine cable operator that wants to upgrade an existing cable can look out into the market and pick the vendor of the modem and know that it will work on the cable.  It makes comparing vendors much easier than it was in the past.  A lot of parts of the network are opening up and this standard by the ITU is a big step forward and is why Ciena is a proactive participant in its development.  Being able to more easily use anybody’s modem on anybody’s cable will result a much more “plug-and-play” environment when compared to the last 10 years.  That’s a big trend that is going to continue in 2022 and well into the future.