NTT presents IOWN as the future of network infrastructure
NTT Research, a branch of conglomerate parent company NTT, announced last week that it would expand the size of its optical research center by 2023.
At its Upgrade 2023 event, the conference for technical users, customers and business partners in San Francisco, NTT presented an overview of how it believes the network infrastructure needs to change. NTT is the main business entity in Japan under which its research arm operates.
NTT’s announcement begs the question for tech industry neophytes who don’t spend their free time hanging around optical research facilities, what exactly does an optical research facility do?
Without delving deeper into the technical elements and advanced mathematics involved in this type of research, the potential applied practical benefits of the work could have a revolutionary impact on networked communication technology as we know it.
NTT’s work in this area builds on the company’s announcement earlier this month that it would begin offering enterprise customers its initial services using next-generation infrastructure based on optical technology. NTT announced at the Upgrade 2023 event that it will charge a monthly fee of US$15,000 per month (approximately 1.98 million yen) to customers through its regional entities, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone West. .
This initiative, known as IOWN (Innovative Optical and Wireless Network), facilitates the revolutionary “low latency” of the new infrastructure system or significantly reduces transmission delays. The result is a 200th of the relevant delays compared to conventional optical communication systems.
In 2019, NTT seeded the idea of IOWN, which is to use optical signals along the communication line to transmit data from the transmitter to the destination. NTT hopes that its IOWN services, which it will mainly offer to business customers, will be beneficial in various use cases, including autonomous driving.
Benefits of the IOWN initiative
Fiber is the primary means of data transmission for existing optical communications widely used in everyday residential environments. In the communication path, optical pulses still need to be converted into electrical signals and vice versa, resulting in latency or delays. These delays can be significantly reduced by IOWN, eliminating the need for signal transcoding.
There are a variety of applications that could exploit this capability. Self-driving cars, remote-controlled robots, digital humans, and remote surgeries conducted in remote areas could benefit from the low latency that distinguishes IOWN services.
Digital Human Interaction Technology Demonstration at NTT Upgrade 2023
During the 2023 upgrade, a compelling demonstration (pictured above) was shown with a robotic arm being used via controllers to move items through a simulated warehouse environment that required tremendous precision with virtually zero latency.
To use IOWN services, customers must use dedicated terminals marketed by Nippon Telegraph and Telephone East and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone West.
Low latency is not the only benefit provided by the IOWN initiative. The IOWN project also aims to achieve low power consumption with a 100 times improvement in electrical efficiency compared to current optical communication systems and a 125 times improvement in transmission capacity.
NTT is massively committed to IOWN as it believes its game-changing benefits will disrupt the network infrastructure space. Over the next few years, NTT will work to create specific terminals and communication technologies to achieve these goals. NTT plans to fully implement the IOWN plan by 2030.
Partners build credibility for the IOWN initiative
The IOWN initiative now includes many well-known enterprises from Japan and abroad. As NTT would like to see IOWN attract as broad international support as possible, a global forum has been established to assess IOWN’s requirements and other technical specifics.
Earlier this month, KDDI Corporation, another major Japanese telecommunications company, was announced as a new member of the international forum by NTT. The company seeks to collaborate with competing companies to promote the rapid expansion of the IOWN platform.
NTT also confirmed that it has created a prototype chip that it hopes will one day dramatically increase data transmission rates in data centers and undersea fiber optic cables.
According to NTT, its all-new small baseband amplifier IC module offers 100GHz ultra-wideband performance. It will be used with emerging all-photonic network technologies, such as future 6G networks and IOWN infrastructure. This aspect is a crucial element of these future networks, according to NTT, as they will need ultra-wideband signal amplification capabilities to eliminate any noise distortion.
IOWN core optical networks will be able to transmit data at rates greater than two terabits per second; however, they need a baseband amplifier IC module to boost the signal. NTT had previously created products that could accomplish this, but they were all large and required connecting to products with external data center blocks. NTT has now created a prototype of its module small enough to fit in any device.
Although the device won’t be commercially available for several years, NTT claims it can amplify a 100 GHz electrical signal, a dramatic improvement over what’s possible with current technology. NTT believes the advancements will eventually increase data center connection speeds and speed up customer Internet access.
Although NTT is not a widely known company outside of Japan, the 150-meter company has a cultural bent for asking questions about the future. With his IOWN initiative, he seems to be challenging the industry to radically rethink future computing needs 25 years from now.
It’s clear that for NTT, photonic optical technology is where the puck seems to go to optimize data transport. My recent interview with NTT’s Global Marketing Director, Vito Mabrucco, highlights the company’s commitment to photonics:
It is useful to remember that most technologies today rely on electronics to transmit and analyze information. In the post-Moore’s Law era, NTT is taking the bold step of pushing the tech industry to think about how it can increase computing power without some of the transistor development techniques that have spanned the past fifty years. From NTT’s perspective, photonics promises to accelerate data transmission speeds, improve machine responsiveness and use far less energy.
Moreover, the positioning of this technology is around the transition from electronics to photonics. The same premise applies to the cellular market, as 6G will eventually eclipse 5G to enable future internet and cloud usage patterns (some not even being considered). Massive data collection with near-zero latency will be possible in environments with specialized photonic processors capable of autonomously switching workloads.
Undoubtedly, a fully enabled IOWN-based world will take time and significant dollar investment to achieve. Typically, new technological advancements come at the expense of performance or power usage trade-offs, but that doesn’t seem to be the case with IOWN. The result will be a revolutionary new network topology that can improve how people use all kinds of information and how society works.
Even at this ambitious level, NTT deserves credit for formulating a bold new vision for network infrastructure that changes the very nature of computing.
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