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Editor's note: OFC, the optical networking and communication conference, kicks off in a few days. In this special guest post, the meeting’s general chairs—Gabriella Bosco, Politecnico di Torino, Italy; Jörg-Peter Elbers, ADVA Optical Networking, Germany; and Laurent Schares, IBM Research, USA—reflect on the hot topics that will be front and center at the conference.

When we look at the bursting demand for bandwidth and snowballing Internet traffic, we see a puzzle that we, as an optical communications community, need to solve to foster sustainable growth. Open disaggregated platforms are considered one piece of the solution, allowing us to simplify, improve and automate network operations.

The OLS example

Clearly, there are benefits to open platforms. They open closed ecosystems for third-party innovation. They offer new business opportunities for incumbent players and new entrants. They create more flexibility and agility. And, they can reduce development efforts and ease interoperability. Moving in this direction is not all or nothing; there are intermediate steps that allow us to reap early benefits.

A prominent example is the open line system (OLS) approach, which is gaining popularity both in terrestrial and submarine optical networks. It disaggregates the optical network from the transponders connecting to it and provides open application programming interfaces (APIs) to both. Large Internet Content Providers (ICPs) such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook favor the OLS approach. Various industry groups, including the Open Disaggregated Transport Networks Project (ODTN) in the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) as well as the Open Optical Packet Transport (OOPT) group in the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), point to OLS as well.

Hurdles facing open networks

Yet, even with these upsides, there are challenges in opening and disaggregating optical communications. While there was a well-defined vertical supply chain before, we are now moving toward an ecosystem in which partners bring pieces of a solution to the table. We need to address system integration, service, life-cycle management and key questions around accountability. Who is responsible for each piece of infrastructure? When it breaks, who fixes it? How do we maximize profitability while collaborating on efficiencies? Embracing open platform innovation requires organizations to change the way they operate and do business—something that doesn’t come easily to most.

Clearly, the industry will not adopt full disaggregation and openness immediately; these approaches require thoughtful consideration and a more in-depth journey. The good news? OFC offers a path forward, providing a venue to explore the latest developments and discuss emerging trends with peers and colleagues. Now is the time to explore operational strategies, use cases and field deployments. Because, no matter where you stand on this topic, it is up to us to complete the puzzle—assembling the full picture one piece at a time.