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Boxborough’s Lightower Fiber Networks acquires Westford’s Veroxity Technology Partners, for undisclosed terms October 4, 2010

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Boxborough’s Lightower Fiber Networks, a provider of fiber network and broadband services, acquires Westford, Massachusetts -based Veroxity Technology Partners, a provider of fiber based data and internet connectivity solutions, for undisclosed terms.

Boxborough’s Lightower Fiber Networks, a fiber network provider, acquires NYC’s Lexent Metro Connect October 3, 2010

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Boxborough’s Lightower Fiber Networks, a fiber network provider, acquires NYC’s Lexent Metro Connect, a provider of dark fiber networks, for undisclosed terms. Lightower Fiber Networks is headquartered in the same old former DEC building that houses eSpendwise, the employer of the Hub Tech Insider.

Acton -based optical equipment maker Mintera Corp. raises $1.65 Million May 25, 2010

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Acton -based Optical equipment maker Mintera Corp. raises $1.65 Million from a group of investors including Polaris Venture Partners, RRE Ventures, Court Square Ventures, Star Ventures, and Portview Communications Partners.

Andover’s Polatis, a developer of optical switching technology, raises $1.2 Million from a group of undisclosed investors February 5, 2010

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Andover’s Polatis, a developer of optical switching technology, raises $1.2 Million from a group of undisclosed investors.


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Get ready for high definition cellular and landline telephone calls November 3, 2009

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For over forty years, the quality of telephone calls has changed very little. The shift in the 1990’s from analog to digital cellular technology promised crisper quality, but the results never panned out. Struggling with 30% annual increases in cellular traffic, cellular telephone companies used the improved technology to add capacity, not improved quality.

Today the demand for cellular minutes is nearing its zenith, with mature growth levels of only 3% in the past year. Now the relentless advance of digital technology advances in cellular communications can be used for purposes other than simply packing more telephone calls into the cellular airwaves.

To this point in time, the big U.S. carriers plan to use their growing capability to provide all sorts of data services, but eventually, the cost of better sounding voice calls will be too cheap to ignore. Today’s carriers convert telephone calls into 6,000 digital bits per second, a tight squeeze and the major reason telephone calls sound so poor today. In the tiny European country of Moldova, French wireless carrier Orange has now deployed the world’s first high definition cellular telephone network, which uses double the number of bits per second. The highs and lows of the human voice are not so badly mangled using the high definition cellular telephone system.

In the U.S., chipmaker Broadcom is working on new equipment that will allow even better-sounding telephone calls. 32,000 digital bits per second will produce voice quality that is virtually indistinguishable from face-to-face conversation. The technology portends a clear audible improvement over not just ordinary cellular telephones but also landline telephones, which chop off high frequencies, especially above 3 kHz, the frequency range in which much human speech falls into.

Another big problem with cellular telephone calls is the annoying apparent lag that occurs between the moment when one caller speaks and the time his voice reaches the other person’s ear. Many people assume that’s an inherent drawback of cellular telephones, but it is not. Wireless digital cellular signals fly through the air at the speed of light just as they do in optical fiber – the delays come from slow software and circuitous routing. The new Long Term Evolution (LTE) gear set for deployment next year should cut that lag by at least 75%, so much that most human ears won’t notice it anymore.

Landline telephones stand to gain from the same quality advances as well. Orange has already installed 500,000 high definition landline telephones in Europe that use voice over internet technology (VOIP). When this style of telephone connection first hit the scene, it was roundly criticized for its poor sound quality relative to traditional landline telephones, but Orange and other carriers, some of whom are in the U.S. like Vonage, have shown that better technology can close that quality gap and then some. Both cellular telephone and Internet landline telephone calls may soon sound terrific as a result.

What is Cao’s Law? June 11, 2009

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Cao’s Law states that the communications spectrum is virtually infinite and that WDM (Wave Division Multiplexing) will allow the information transmitted upon the available spectrum to expand exponentially as the growth of transistors in Moore’s Law. Using less and less power, WDM will allow finer and finer channels of light to transmit more and more data. Cao’s Law states that these lambdas will expand at a rate two to three times the rate of expansion of transistors on an integrated circuit chip as in Moore’s Law. On optical fibers, as opposed to the tradeoffs between power and connectivity in the transistor world, in the optical realm, the tradeoff is between bitrate and channel count. To this point of the technology’s development, we can either pump a high bitrate on each channel or we can transmit lots of channels, but we cannot do both of these things at the same time. Among telecom carriers today, there seems to be a manifestation of Simon Cao’s Law in action in the real world.

SS7 – Signaling System Seven – Telecommunications Protocol SS7 June 10, 2009

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SS7 software layers

SS7 software layers

In Signaling System 7 (SS7) protocol, a worldwide standard (with variations), routing intelligence is located in low cost computer-based equipment rather than in central office switches.

One of the primary benefits of SS7 is global interoperability. It has the capability to enable all carriers to cooperate with each other. It is a standard protocol approved by the ITU. Global billing, toll-free calling, 900-number services, and international wireless call roaming are all call features that are dependent on SS7.

SS7 is used on a global basis. In North America, the ANSI version of SS7 is used. In Europe, the ETSI version is used. In other pats of the world, the ITU version of SS7 is used.

Gateways allow these international SS7 implementations to communicate with each other.

SS7 is essential to modern networking. With SS7, an overlaid packet switched network controls the underlying voice network’s operation and signaling information is carried on a separate channel from voice and data traffic.

Because signaling is such a quick network activity, it is possible to multiplex many signaling messages over one signaling channel using a packet switching arrangement.

SS7 permits the telephone company to provide one database for several switches in order to freeup switch capability for other functions. This is the capability that makes SS7 the foundation for Intelligent Networks (INs) as well as Advanced Intelligent Networks (AINs).

As an example, in order to provide a service such as 900 number and toll-free calling, in SS7, powerful parallel processing computer systems hold massive databases with information such as routing instructions for toll-free and 900 number telephone calls. One processor with its database supports many central office switches under SS7. in this way, each central office itself is not required to host the centralized database. Without the need to share the expense of maintaining the sophisticated routing information, each central office can share in the expense of a database or feature upgrade to the centralized SS7 datastore.

MCI first implemented SS7 into its network in 1988. SS7 enabled them to halve their call setup time on calls between Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Freeing up voice channels from their previous signaling duties pre-SS7 enabled carriers to pack more voice calls on their existing network paths.

Cellular networks use SS7 technology to support roaming. Every cellular provider has a database called the home location register, or HLR, where complete information regarding each subscriber is kept. They also maintain a database called the VLR, or visitor location register, that maintains information on each caller who visits from other areas. When a cellular subscriber roams, each network they visit exchanges SS7 messages with their “home” network. The subscriber’s home system also marks its HLR so that it knows where to send calls for its customers who are roaming.

SS7 has three major components:

1. Packet switches – Signal Transfer Points that route signals between databases and central switches. STPs, or Signal Transfer Points, are responsible for translating the SS7 messages and then routing these messages amongst the various network nodes and databases. Signal Transfer points are packet switches that route signals between central offices as specialized databases. Messages are sent between points on the SS7 network in variable-length packets with the addresses attached. Signal transfer switches read only the address portion of the packets and forward the messages accordingly.

2. Service Switching Points – Software and ports in central offices that enable switches to query databases. SSPs are the switches that begin and end calls. They receive signals from the Customer Provided Equipment (CPE) and then process the calls on the behalf of the end users. The user triggers the network to provide various services by dialing particular digits. SSPs are typically implemented at access tandem offices, local exchanges or toll centers that contain the needed network signaling protocols. The SSP serves as the begining and ending point for SS7 messaging.

3. Service Control Points – DBs with customer feature and billing information. Service Control Points, or SCPs, interface with SSPs as well as STPs. The STP contains the network configuration and call-completion database – the SCP contains all the service logic that is needed to deliver the type of call and feature in the call that the user is requesting. SCPs are centralized network nodes that contain software and databases needed for call management. Functions such as digit translation, call routing and verification of credit cards are all provided by SCPs. Usually a SCP will receive traffic from a SSP via the STP and will then return responses based on those queries by way of the STP.

The SS7 signaling data link is a full duplex digital transmission channel that operates at either 56 Kbs (T-Carrier transmission systems, in North America) or 64 Kbps (E_Carrier transmission systems, Europe). SS7 also defines a number of other types of links, each with a specific use within a SS7 network.

A (access) links
B (bridge) links, D (diagonal) links, and B/D links
C (cross) links
E (extended) links
F (fully associated) links

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I’m Paul Seibert, Editor of Boston’s Hub Tech Insider, a Boston focused technology blog. I have been working in the software engineering and ecommerce industries for over fifteen years. My interests include computers, electronics, robotics and programmable microcontrollers, and I am an avid outdoorsman and guitar player. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, follow me on Twitter, follow me on Quora, even friend me on Facebook if you’re cool. I own and am trying to sell a dual-zoned, residential & commercial Office Building in Natick, MA. I have a background in entrepreneurship, ecommerce, telecommunications and software development, I’m a Technical PMO Director, I’m a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of several ecommerce and web-based software startups, the latest of which are Twitterminers.com and Tshirtnow.net.

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The Advantages and Disadvantages of Fiber Optics June 4, 2009

Posted by HubTechInsider in Fiber Optics, Telecommunications.
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English: A TOSLINK fiber optic cable with a cl...

English: A TOSLINK fiber optic cable with a clear jacket that has a laser being shone onto one end of the cable. The laser is being shone into the left connector; the light coming out the right connector is from the same laser. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advantages of fiber optics:

1. Extremely high bandwidth – No other cable-based data transmission medium offers the bandwidth that fiber does.

2. Easy to accomodate increasing bandwidth – Using many of the recent generations of fiber optic cabling, new equipment can be added to the inert fiber cable that can provide vastly expanded capacity over the originally laid fiber. DWDM, or Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing, lends fiber optic cabling the ability to turn various wavelengths of light traveling down the fiber on and off at will. These two characteristics of fiber cable enable dynamic network bandwidth provisioning to provide for data traffic spikes and lulls.

3. Resistance to electromagnetic interference – Fiber has a very low rate of bit error (10 EXP-13), as a result of fiber being so resistant to electromagnetic interference. Fiber-optic transmission are virtually noise free.

4. Early detection of cable damage and secure transmissions – Fiber provides an extremely secure transmission medium, as there is no way to detect the data being transmitted by “listening in” to the electromagnetic energy “leaking” through the cable, as is possible with traditional, electron-based transmissions. By constantly monitoring an optical network and by carefully measuring the time it takes light to reflect down the fiber, splices in the cable can be easily detected.

Disadvantages of Fiber Optics:

1. Installation costs, while dropping, are still high – Despite the fact that fiber installation costs are dropping by as much as 60% a year, installing fiber optic cabling is still relatively costly. As installation costs decrease, fiber is expanding beyond its original realm and major application in the carrier backbone and is moving into the local loop, and through technologies such as FTTx (Fiber To The Home, Premises, etc,) and PONs (Passive Optical networks), enabling subscriber and end user broadband access.

2. Special test equipment is often required – The test equipment typically and traditionally used for conventional electron-based networking is of no use in a fiber optic network. Equipment such as an OTDR (Optical Time Domain Reflectometer)

is required, and expensive, specialized optical test equipment such as optical probes are needed at most fiber endpoints and connection nexuses in order to properly provide testing of optical fiber.

3. Susceptibility to physical damage – Fiber is a small and compact cable, and it is highly susceptible to becoming cut or damaged during installation or construction activities. Because railroads often provide rights-of-way for fiber optic installation, railroad car derailments pose a significant cable damage threat, and these events can disrupt service to large groups of people, as fiber optic cables can provide tremendous data transmission capabilities. Because of this, when fiber optic cabling is chosen as the transmission medium, it is necessary to address restoration, backup and survivability.

4. Wildlife damage to fiber optic cables – Many birds, for example, find the Kevlar reinforcing material of fiber cable jackets particularly appealing as nesting material, so they peck at the fiber cable jackets to utilize bits of that material. Beavers and other rodents use exposed fiber cable to sharpen their teeth and insects such as ants desire the plastic shielding in their diet, so they can often be found nibbling at the fiber optic cabling. Sharks have also been known to damage fiber optic cabling by chomping on it when laid underwater, especially at the repeating points. There is a plant called the Christmas tree plant that treats fiber optic cable as a tree root and wraps itself around the cable so tightly that the light impulses traveling down the fiber are choked off.

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What is the definition of a Next-Generation Network, or NGN? May 28, 2009

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The term next-generation network is a term that has become more and more prevalent in telecommunications-industry publications and in the general technology and news media. The term actually has a very specific meaning in the telecom industry that I would like to clarify:

The rapidly declining cost of bandwidth, combined with the easy availability of powerful and cheap microprocessor technology, has brought to the fore the economies of scale that packet switching combined with statistical multiplexing afford, provided that a solution can be found to latency and packet loss.

In order to answer these challenges, next-generation networks have at their core two overriding concepts. First of all, a next-generation network supports QoS (Quality of Service) while being a fundamentally high-speed packet-based network which can carry and route a myriad of broadband services, including multimedia, video, data and voice.

Secondly, a next-generation network serves as a common application platform for services and applications that a customer base can access from anywhere across the network as well as outside it.

The SONET and SDH Signal Hierarchy: How many T-1s are in an OC-1, OC-3, OC-12, or OC-48? May 10, 2009

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I have found that there exists out there in the wide world a touch of confusion when it comes to recognizing the different signal levels and transmission speeds associated with what is referred to in the telecom industry as digital hierarchies, the two most common of which are, in North America, the PDH and SDH, or SONET, hierarchies.

Throughout my work as a telecommunications enthusiast, a pastime of discovery which has kept me occupied ever since my teen years, and on through many of my professional pursuits, I have always served as a point of reference for others in regards to the various telecommunications signal levels as well as the transmission speeds that these levels in the hierarchies represent. The following is my rough attempt to put this information into one place that can serve as a reference for me and others:

SONET was developed to aggregate, or multiplex, circuit switched traffic such as T-1, (E-1 in Europe) T-3, and slower rates of data traffic from multiple sources on fiber-optic networks. SONET transports traffic at high speeds called OC (Optical Carrier). The international version of SONET is called the synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH). SDH carries traffic at synchronous transport mode speeds. Equipment interfaces make SONET and SDH speeds compatible with each other, so the same SONET switching equipment can be used for both OC and SDH speeds.

OC-1 operates at 52 Mbps and is equivalent to 28 DS-1s (same as a T-1) or 1 DS-3 (same as a T-3). OC-1 is generally used as customer access lines. Early-adopter types of customers such as universities, airports, financial institutions, large government agencies, and ISPs – use OC-1.

OC-3 operates at 155 Mbps and is equivalent to 84 DS-1s (same as a T-1) or 3 DS-3s (same as a T-3). OC-3 speeds are required by end users such as companies in the aerospace industry and high-tier ISPs.

OC-12 operates at 622 Mbps and is equivalent to 336 DS-1s (same as T-1) or 12 DS-3s. This is another capacity towards which high-tier ISPs are moving. It was originally deployed for the metropolitan area fiber rings built out across cities worldwide, although those rings are now moving to OC-48.

OC-48 operates at 2,488 Mbps and is equivalent to 1,344 DS-1s (same as a T-1) or 48 DS-3s (same as a T-3). This capacity has been deployed for backbone, or core, networks. Today the metropolitan area rings are moving from OC-48 to OC-192.

OC-192 operates at 9,953 Mbps and is equivalent to 5,376 DS-1s (same as a T-1) or 192 DS-3s (same as a T-3). OC-192 is in use for backbone networks.

OC-768 operates at 39,812 Mbps and is equivalent to 21,504 DS-1s (same as a T-1) or 768 DS-3s (same as a T-3). Use of OC-768 is very rare outside of testing or research networks due to the great expense of this transmission speed level.

At times, you may see OC levels such as OC-1c, OC-3c, OC-12c, etc. This is called concatenation, and it puts streams of data into one fat, or high-bandwidth, contiguous stream. For example, OC-1 speeds of 52 Mbps may be used to carry broadcast video. In this case, OC-1c, or concatenated OC-1, carries OC-1 streams back-to-back. These streams travel contiguously through the network as long as capacity is available. Most applications for concatenation are high-speed data and broadcast-quality video.

As far as the DS, or Digital Signal Levels, of the older PDH, or Plesiochronous Digital Hierarchy (plesiochronous means “minute variations in timing”), they follow what is known as the T-carrier signal levels. Technically, the DS-x and CEPT-x terminology (DS-1, DS-3, CEPT-1, CEPT-3, and so on) indicates a specific signal level (and thus usable bandwidth), as well as the electrical interface specification. T-x and E-x terminology (T-1, T-3, E-1, E-3, and so on) indicates the type of carrier – a specific implementation of a DS-x/CEPT-x. More often than not these days, however, the terms DS-x and T-x are used interchangeably. So some people might use the term DS-1 and T-1 to refer to the same thing – a digital transport that can carry 1.544 Mpbs over a total of 24 voice channels. In Europe, the same is true: E-1 is the same as CEPT-1, and so forth.

A DS-0 (T-0) has a bit rate of 64 Kbps and carries 1 voice-grade channel.

A DS-1 is equivalent to a T-1 and has a bit rate of 1.544 Mpbs and carries 24 voice channels.

A DS-2 has a bit rate of 6.312 Mpbs and carries 96 voice channels, equivalent to 4 T-1s. This is also sometimes referred to as a T-2, or T2.

A DS-3 has a bit rate of 44.736 Mpbs and carries 672 voice channels, equivalent to 28 T-1s. This is also sometimes referred to as a T-3, or T3.

A DS-4 has a bit rate of 274.176 Mpbs and carries 4,032 voice channels, equivalent to 168 T-1s. This is also sometimes referred to as a T-4, or T4.


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You’re reading Boston’s Hub Tech Insider, a blog stuffed with years of articles about Boston technology startups and venture capital-backed companies, software development, Agile project management, managing software teams, designing web-based business applications, running successful software development projects, ecommerce and telecommunications.


About the author.

I’m Paul Seibert, Editor of Boston’s Hub Tech Insider, a Boston focused technology blog. You can connect with me on LinkedIn, follow me on Twitter, even friend me on Facebook if you’re cool. I own and am trying to sell a dual-zoned, residential & commercial Office Building in Natick, MA. I have a background in entrepreneurship, ecommerce, telecommunications and software development, I’m the Senior Technical Project Manager at eSpendWise, I’m a serial entrepreneur and the co-founder of Tshirtnow.net.

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Why IP beat out ATM for use in Next-Generation Voice Networks May 10, 2009

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For a good part of the 90’s, conventional wisdom in the telecommunications industry held that asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) and Internet Protocol (IP) were competing technologies. IP, the prevailing notion held, was a “best effort” service because IP-based networks indiscriminately discarded packets if there was congestion. There was no standardized protocol to identify and prioritize video and voice. The industry at that time maintained that best effort protocols would not be recognized by carriers as acceptable for voice traffic. Because of this, ATM’s ability to create virtual connections and to prioritize voice and video so that packets would never be dropped and quality of service standards were met gave ATM a vital advantage.

ATM also had speed advantages, capable of speeds of 155 and 622 megabits per second. Ethernet LANS at this time were limited to 10 megabits per second, and IP used between networks was also slower than ATM. For these above reasons, when carriers wanted to improve their networks, they decided on ATM equipment. I personally was involved in Fleet Bank’s multi-million dollar loan to LDDS Worldcom (now MCI) in the late nineties for ATM gear for their UUNET data network subsidiary.

However, despite all of its inherent advantages, ATM gear was costly and complex to install. There was a slight push around this time for ATM to be used in LANs, especially in campus backbone networks and NSF research nets, but ATM was far too expensive to deploy on the desktop. So ATM was relegated to use in large corporate backbone networks and carrier traffic-bearing data networking.

So, as you can imagine, mainly due to the speed and quality-of-service advantages, established telecom vendors and most new softswitch vendors initally at least based their next-generation voice switch architecture on ATM rather than IP. Meanwhile, improvements in routers and faster speeds on IP networks were making IP networks much more suitable for voice. Also at this time, Cisco’s TAG protocol, the forerunner of today’s MPLS, was being developed and was maturing. The MPLS protocol marked packets so that voice and video could be prioritized. This capability let IP packet flows be handled similarly to ATM virtual connections, which treat various types of traffic differently. Concurently, IP speeds improved from 10 megabits per second to 100 megabits per second speeds and, eventually, gigabit speeds.

With these notable improvements in speed and service qualities, along with the fact that corporate endpoints were already equipped to deal with IP traffic, the founders of Sonus Networks (Westford, MA), in 1997, choose to base their next-generation, softswitch-based voive infrastructure on IP. In this manner, Sonus was granted a head start over competitors who initially developed platforms based on ATM, losing time and previously invested development money when they switched over to IP – too late.

In related news, Sonus Networks of Westford, MA recently (11 March 09) announced it is “restructuring” again, cutting another 60 employees to complete its third round of cuts in three months. The company said this cut will equal out to about 6% of their workforce. The total job cuts within the three months has added up to 160 jobs lost at the networking equipment vendor. Sonus has a baseline resource level of approximately 1,000 people.

BT (British Telecom) has also recently (3 May 09) announced that it is cutting back on deployments of equipment and resources for its 21CN Next Generation Network (NGN) project.

Jefferies & Company analyst George Notter points out in a recent research note that Sonus was slated to in late 2007 to provide an Access Gateway Controller Function (AGCF) to enable communications between core IP and PSTN access networks. However, Sonus may have to take a revenue hit now, as BT discovered that its NGN network architecture is too costly. They have halted the NGN Network cutover project.

Update: Sonus Networks announces 2009 Q1 results

The transformative effect of Fiber Optics on Bandwidth May 7, 2009

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The stated figures you may frequently encounter for bandwidth measurements, expressed in bits per second, can be hard to interpret and grasp using real-world examples that can be easily envisioned. As a for instance, fiber optic transmission facilities and fiber cables can today very easily enable data transmission speeds of up to 10Gps. 10Gps transmission speeds mean 10 billion bits per second can be sent down the fiber – and this bandwidth can accommodate, as an example, sending all 32 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica in a mere tenth of a second.

But there is even more at work here; The real impact of fiber is not just on the ever advancing Bps rates that can be facilitated, but also in the capabilities fiber affords to us in terms of reducing the number of conversions from analog to digital that at present are required to traverse the legacy telecommunications infrastructure as the data moves from point to point across the globe.

A tectonic shift is occurring; The transition from the electronic era to the optical, or photonic era. An entirely new generation of switches and devices that at their heart are optical.

Consider the hypothetical example of a fax transmission from a location in the United States to a location in India. Beginning as marks on a piece of paper (the most analog of communications mediums), the fax machine in the US digitizes the paper’s marks (the first conversion). The modem in the fax machine then converts these digital bits into analog sounds that can be sent over the telephone. The Class 5 switch at the local exchange in the US converts these sounds back to digital (the third conversion). The Class 4 switch in the US then converts these digital bits back into analog for the trip overseas on the telephone network to India. The receiving Class 4 switch in India then converts these analog sounds back into digital bits. The Class 5 switch in India, close to the destination fax machine at the local exchange, then converts back into analog for the transmission to the receiving fax machine. The modem in the receiving fax machine then reconverts these analog sounds back into digital bits, which are assembled, checked for accuracy and printed on a blank sheet of paper, rendering a final analog page of marks exactly in the form of the marks on the original page that went into the US fax machine. That is a total of eight conversions! Avoiding this high number of conversions is possible only in an optical network; And when we have more optical equipment in the chain of network nodes, then we will be capable of utilizing fiber to an even greater degree to achieve previously unimagined transmission speeds.

What’s the difference between a first generation and a second generation Optical Switch? April 24, 2009

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Two types of optical switches are currently being produced: switches with electrical cores (i.e., first-generation optical switches) and switches with optical cores (i.e., next-generation optical switches). The elctronics in first-generation switches slow their capability to work with the very high rates that the fiber itself can support. The future lies in the pure optical switches, but we still have to fully develop the microphotonics industry; Thus, integrated photonic circuits are really the next key technology required to drive the optical networking industry forward.pr05_3dmems01

The application of Moore’s Law-type metrics to Fiber Optics April 21, 2009

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fiberThe basic equation in assessing the development of optics is that every year, the data rate that can be supported on a wavelength doubles and the number of wavelengths that can be supported on a fiber doubles as well.

Developments in optical networking have caused the cost of transport to drop dramatically in recent years. Over the past decade, the cost of moving bits has dropped so dramatically that if the automobile industry could match it, you could buy a BMW for just a dollar or two.

What the Heck is a MPLS NGN? April 14, 2009

Posted by HubTechInsider in Fiber Optics, Telecommunications.
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Ever since I heard of MPLS NGN, I have been excited about the potential for the latest backbone networking technology and wanted to find out more about it. After reading through several books on MPLS NGNs, their architecture, the advantages, and what their potential for ILEC provisoners as well as CLEC access providers truly is, I think I am ready to outline the definition of a MPLS NGN, describe in an extremely non-technical way how they work, what they do, and what kinds of services they will enable in the future. I also try and expand just a bit on why I think they are so important, and what kinds of traditional weakness and deficiencies is the networks that have gone before they are able to address. And addressing on the fly is really at the heart of what a MPLS NGN does so well: 

General Architecture of a Multiprotocol Label Switching, Next Generation Network

MPLS is an acronym for Multiprotocol Label Switching. A NGN is a Next Generation Network. 

MPLS was created to address the weaknesses in traditional IP networks. Please recall that IP was designed to support “best effort” services. In other words, routers contain no inherent perception of the existence of or proper functioning of connections or rings; they see the ports and addresses that are available to their discovery via priority cues and routing tables. Simply put, IP routing lacks intelligence. So-called “Least cost” routing was designed to conduct traffic along the network using the shortest possible number of hops, which means traffic on the network could potentially take shorter, congested paths rather than the potentially more efficient longer, uncongested paths, leading to network “hotspots” and degrading network performance.

The MPLS environment, which has been gaining increased attention, was born out of Cisco’s tag switching. MPLS was originally proposed by the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) in 1997, with the core specifications being finalized in 2000. MPLS’s ability to plot static paths through an IP network gives service providers the traffic-engineering ability they crave, and the capability for provisioning (in the telecom sense of that word) VPNs is greatly strengthened. In fact, MPLS provides a very solid base for VPNs – and with increased capability for traffic engineering, service providers are able to tightly control and maintain QoS as well as optimize network utilization.

Although technically not an IP network, despite the fact that it can run in routers and uses IP routing protocols like OSPF and IS-IS, MPLS is one of the most significant developments in IP. To truly understand why this is, you also need to know that although it can also use repurposed ATM switch hardware, MPLS is, again technically, not an ATM network. 

MPLS is another type of network entirely: MPLS is a service-enabling technology. Think of MPLS like a general purpose, tunneling technology. As such, it is capable of carrying both IP and non-IP payloads. It uses what is called “label switching” to transport cells or packets over any data link layer throughout the network.

Much like the inband and out-of-band signaling on the PSTN, MPLS separates the forwarding, or transport, plane from the control plane. By so doing, it enables the capability to run the control plane on devices which cannot actually understand IP or recognize the boundaries of incoming packets. MPLS itself is an encapsulating protocol that has the ability to transport a number of other protocols. These protocols are encapsulated with a label that at each hop is swapped. The label is a number, or UID (Unique Identifier) that identifies a set of data flows along a particular logical link. They are only of local significance and they must change as a packets follow along a predetermined path – they literally switch.

MPLS’s potential to untie IP and optical switching under one route-provisioning umbrella is of great benefit, but it was designed to address two problems inherent in IP networks: IP sends all traffic over the same route between two points, and it cannot absolutely guarantee network resources, because as you will recall, IP is a connectionless protocol. These two shortcomings, in times of heavy network traffic, lead to some routes becoming underutilized while others become congested. Lacking control over the routing assignments, the provider cannot steer traffic from congested to less busy routes. So one key differentiator between IP and MPLS is the simple fact the MPLS networks can steer packets between two points along different paths depending upon their switching MPLS labels.

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