Taking an approach that is unique on two fronts, Access Optical Networks Inc. is developing a holographic storage system that is based on crystals and will be part of an end-to-end optical network, eliminating the need for optical-to- electronic conversions. The storage system would have a capacity of 1.2 terabytes and an access time of 1 Gbit/second.
"We would not have an electrical conversion of the signal, and that will allow much faster access to the data and a simpler architecture with a lot less equipment," said Glenn Gladney, CEO of Access Optical Networks (AON; Naperville, Ill.). "It's really organized for the kind of traffic we'll see on networks of the future, where you can store large volumes of data and get high transaction capacity."
AON's goals are similar to other network equipment suppliers, and Gladney said that AON may be "losing some of our edge because other people are moving in the direction [that] we have."
Many of today's networking equipment suppliers are building products to lessen optical-electrical-optical conversions, and the market for such equipment has become more competitive with the rise of Huawei Technology Co. Ltd. and ZTE Corp. The two Chinese players have become market leaders by selling good products at low costs, said Sterling Perrin, senior analyst with Heavy Reading, an independent market research organization owned by EE Times parent CMP Media LLC. "There are a lot of players, and they're all trying to make that end-to-end network that is more optical and less electronic conversion."
The six-year-old AON said its combination unit, code-named the All-Optical Network Interface and Storage (AONIS) system, would erase the mismatch between optical carrier-grade networks and digital computer bus interfaces, enabling it to outperform today's 10-Gbit/s long-haul networks and fledgling 40-Gbit/s networks.
"We're trying to go to 160 gigabits per second off of a dense wave-division multiplex network and then go directly into arrays of storage at those high network speeds," Gladney said.
Cisco Systems Inc.'s CRS-1 core router and Juniper Networks Inc.'s T-series router each have OC-768 (40-Gbit/s) interfaces. A Juniper spokesperson said that "40 Gig is just starting to get deployed and is in a relatively early phase of adoption. In general, the industry is talking about 100 Gig, but I don't think anyone's come out with anything yet." AON's AONIS system would support OC-3270 or 160-Gbit/s interfaces that support traffic that's 16 times faster than OC-768 rates.
The AONIS system has two parts: a holographic storage unit and a high-speed networking unit. The storage portion, called the Compact Holographic Data Storage (CHDS) system, is "in the development stage," and Gladney said a prototype should be ready in the fourth quarter, followed by a commercial product in 2008. The 160-Gbit networking unit is "in the research stage" and will require another 24 or 36 months "in terms of being ready for commercial consideration," he said. A wireless interface could be attached to the system as well. "You would be able to maximize the streaming of video across the network."
Analyst Perrin said there was "a lot of opportunity" for a smaller company active in next-generation long-haul, dense wavelength-division multiplexing, optical packaging or reconfigurable optical add-drop multiplexer technology. "Most of the big guys really had to cut R&D when the telecom market crashed. As these new trends are emerging, they tend to be behind," he said.
A startup with a distinctive technology could be the target of a larger company, however. "A company that brings out the right thing at the right time--they most likely would be bought up. Some CTOs have lamented that there's not too many startups coming out," Perrin said. As carriers look to speed 10-Gbit/s networks to 40 Gbits and search for an economical way to move to 100 Gbits, "a company that can make 100-Gbit Ethernet technology cheaper than three 40-Gbit technology components could open the way for carriers to go to 100-Gbit Ethernet," he said.
Gladney said AON is not interested in being acquired. The company has "talked to a number of different companies that are probably big enough to acquire us," Gladney said. "Some are potential customers and some are potential competitors. [But] OEM partnerships is more the pattern we want to take."
AON is developing its systems by using patented technology related to optical networking and optical storage licensed from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Princeton University. The company has also filed for and been granted patents for internally developed technology. Its research collaboration with Princeton on optical processing for Sonet 3072 160-Gbit/s networking is funded by the New Jersey Commission on Science and Technology and Princeton technology transfer, Gladney said. "To a good degree, we're in a place where we have core technology of our own and patented technology that gives us a substantial amount of protections from competitors and competitive products."
AON's game plan includes a page from the past, specifically its use of a lithium niobate crystal as a holographic storage medium. Crystal storage "was explored rigorously in the 1990s" by researchers at IBM Corp. and elsewhere, but the technology did not yield a commercial product, Gladney said.