Bringing Automation to Physical Fiber Cross Connects

April 9, 2020
Bob Shine, VP of Product Management and Marketing at Telescent, explores ways to automate physical fiber cross connects. Automation ensures the integrity of the testing process, connectivity records and measurement results.

Bob Shine, VP of Product Management and Marketing at Telescent, explores ways to incorporate automation to physical fiber cross connects. Further explore interconnection with Telescent. 

Bob Shine, VP of Product Management and Marketing at Telescent

Each day brings fresh statistics on the increase in internet usage as companies and students switch to work-from-home policies to reduce the risks from COVID-19.  Microsoft has announced that its group-collaboration platform, Microsoft Teams, has grown from 32 million daily active users to 44 million.  German internet exchange company DE-CIX stated it set a new world record for data throughput at 9.1 terabits per second, an increase of 12% from the prior record set just a couple of months earlier.  And to reduce the strain in the European network, Netflix and YouTube announced a switch to streaming in SD for the next 30 days.

As many of the readers of this article understand, the internet is a mesh of multiple local internet service providers that interact with global carriers while providing access to the various applications and enterprises that customers interact with.  Something as simple as a Zoom meeting may require interaction with multiple service providers and connections through several multi-tenant data centers (MTDC).  Yet to protect this critical infrastructure, MTDC operators are closing their facilities to customers and contractors in hard-hit areas, and severely restricting access in other facilities around the world.  The challenge for MTDC operators and their customers is the need to rapidly respond to the increased network demand while reducing human access to the facility as much as possible.

While much of the internet infrastructure can be remotely controlled and configured, the physical layer still requires manual intervention for provisioning cross connects.  The solution is to bring automation to the physical layer.  Luckily there are solutions that provide a fully reconfigurable, automated solution for remote operation that can scale to many thousand cross connects.

Some of these solutions can automate the management of the physical interconnections to extend Software-Defined-Networking (SDN) to the physical fiber layer.  The current manual method involves multiple steps and coordination among staff and these steps can take from a few days to over a week.  The automated platforms utilize a large scale, automated fiber-optic cross-connect and software control to enable reliable and repeatable physical provisioning of low-loss connections within minutes.  These systems also provide diagnostic capability using an optical power monitor and optional OTDR monitoring of all connections while providing automated Inventory record keeping with machine accuracy.

Comparing the time for manual versus automated provisioning (Graph/image: Telescent)

A key use case for the Telescent G4 NTM is in provisioning cross connects in multi-tenant data centers.  OpEx reduction was a major focus for large-scale network and data center operators, even before the challenges imposed by COVID-19.  Trained labor to install, configure and troubleshoot physical network interconnections can be difficult to develop and limits scalability and efficiency of computer centers.  Installation and management of interconnects are complex and labor-intensive processes, typically taking from three days to over a week on average per reconfiguration.  Any problems that arise when performing the multiple steps can significantly increase the labor time and expense.  Technicians must manually test insertion loss and signal transmission through each interconnect and this often uncovers installation issues that leads to rework.  These measurements may require the coordination of technicians at both ends of a link in different cities, continents, etc.

To address these challenges, services like Telescent’s integrate the network topology manager and diagnostic equipment into the physical SDN framework.  While performing the cross connection, these systems can also automate a wide range of physical network functions, including OTDR testing of fiber.  This painstaking, multi-step process of manual installation and testing is error prone and costly.  Rapid, accurate and remote deployment of the cross connects can reduce the time from days to less than an hour.

Figure 1: Photo and Inside of the Telescent G4 Network Topology Manager showing 1,008 cross-connects configured with the robotic arm. (Graph/images: Telescent)

Automation ensures the integrity of the testing process, connectivity records and measurement results.  End-to-end physical links passing through multiple interconnects can be tested automatically in about 10 hours machine time (no labor time) for about 1,000 interconnects.  Typically, two technicians require 15 minutes each (0.5 man-hours total) to physically locate fiber endpoints, measure loss at each endpoint, complete an OTDR scan and record the data.  For 1,000 interconnects, this corresponds to 500 hours.  At $100/hr per person the expense is significant ($50,000).  Platforms that bring automation of the physical file layer drives this labor cost to zero and provides many operational benefits.

In summary, a network topology manager  that incorporates robotics to configure and reconfigure, connect and disconnect, troubleshoot and validate fiber optic interconnections, on-demand, in real-time and more economically, offers an invaluable solution to meet the unprecedented network challenges we are facing today as well as the unknown challenges we will have to face tomorrow.

 Bob Shine is the VP of Product Management and Marketing at Telescent.

About the Author

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