The Real CTOs of Network Innovation: Christoph Glingener, ADVA Optical Networking

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For this post, I met up with Christoph Glingener of ADVA Optical Networking to find out which innovations he believes are having the biggest impact, what he thinks are the barriers standing in the way of progress and what surprises him most about the networking industry.

Prayson: Christoph, thank you for taking the time today to talk with me. This interview is a little bit different because I’m interviewing another Real CTO in my own company. I'm excited to talk with you about network innovation so let’s get started. What’s the one new innovation that will have the most impact on our business?

Christoph: I don’t think there’s one innovation, so I actually group them. I like to think about drivers of transformation in terms of applications, technologies and requirements.

Let’s start with mobile. The push from 4G to LTE-Advanced to Advanced Plus to 5G maybe in 2020 drives a lot of change – not just bandwidth, but also new architectures. I always say the mobile architecture is really just an optical network with an antenna. It’s not mobile, it’s optical. But this also drives different requirements for availability.

When you think about connected cars, Internet of Things and this sort of thing, we’re talking to people who are saying, “We really need very high availability.”

Today most of the stuff is only best effort, I’d say. But what changes when you think about driving on the German Autobahn is that you want high availability to that control set. So there are changing requirements in availability and definitely very stringent requirements in synchronization. Also in latency and, of course, security. You don’t want anyone to hack your car while you’re driving. So this is all about the connected car or connected device.

Another big thing driving network innovation is Gigabit Cities. The target is 1Gig symmetrical. It started with Google Fiber and everybody is following. Some are saying it’s not just symmetrical that we need, it’s even uncontended.

But in Europe we’re far behind for many reasons. In some countries in Asia-Pacific it’s getting there, but in any case it’s changing a lot. Think about symmetrical uncontended and what that means to demand for backhaul and connectivity.

So the next one, of course, is cloud services and anything associated with it. Everything’s moving to the cloud.

We ourselves use a lot of cloud services in the way we do engineering, especially software engineering. And then there are some special verticals like health and assisted living.

I think healthcare is a big application that requires network change or at least drives huge capacity. PACS (picture archiving and communication system) is simply exploding, leading to growing data centers and hospital clustering.

Again, new requirements for security and low latency are becoming interesting for the network. Another is what we call Industry 4.0 in Germany. I think it’s called Industrial Internet in the US. Sometimes it’s just mixed with Industrial Internet of Things.

This is all about the full automation of anything done in production, operations and tooling. Big automotive industries are always a good example for that, how the factories work, and again it comes with stringent requirements for security, synchronization and bandwidth.

Miniaturization, Synchronization and Latency

Now looking at technologies you can start with the components. It’s all about miniaturization, integration of electronics and photonics and having tiny chips. We’ve all heard about silicon photonics, evolution of digital signal processing and processors. These new technologies enable virtualization. Whether it’s software-defined networking or network functions virtualization (NFV)-based, I would call it the cognitive programmable network.

Another very hot issue lately for us, driven by larger customers, is sustainability and being green. Our solutions need to be sustainable. We’re now being asked to minimize the end-to-end life-time carbon footprint of our solutions. That’s not easy. We have a highly successful sustainable supply chain initiative underway, which is unique in our industry and we’re only just getting started.
Yet another issue is the assumed lifetime of a solution. Take for example big content providers, the data centers. How data centers are built today is very different in terms of lifetime and what you actually do with equipment after you write it off.

An extreme example could be a customer that writes it off after three years, then bins it and buys something new.

Commoditization with white boxes, disaggregation – a lot of buzz words come down to being open to anything. It can be open source or lots of different interfaces. For me they all come together.

All of this impacts what we do. I like to call it Connectivity 4.0 on Network 4.0 in line with Industry 4.0. So we need something new and different and it’s not just one innovation.

The number one thing that will influence our business is of course high bandwidth with low cost.

So, we’re focused on providing very high capacity low-cost connectivity and that can be terabits between some data centers, but could also be in backhaul. Take things like our micro-connect portfolio in the metro area, which could also be in the access network like what we did with ADVAntage-PON, as well as what we do with differentiated components like MicroMux that we just launched.

So this is all about very high and affordable bandwidth, whether it’s between data centers, in the metro, in the backhaul, or going down to end users.

And, all of it needs to be programmable and intelligent. As such, we need a hypervisor for optical resources that makes them competitive or programmable for cloud services or business services or mobile backhaul with NFV.

We also consider synchronization to be one of the key requirements for 5G or Industry 4.0. It will be in every solution we sell in one way or another.

Phase synchronization is going to be critical to achieving the massive bandwidth increase and almost zero latency that 5G promises. As mobile networks go from 4G to LTE-Advanced and then 5G, we’re adding many more base stations, which is what we have to do to increase bandwidth. Synchronization is required so that our mobile phones can simultaneously receive from multiple base stations.

Now if you look at the requirements for connected cars you hear people saying we need +/-300-nanosecond accuracy for phase synchronization. To achieve that you need to take an end-to-end view of a timing signal and come up with new timing distribution and assurance solutions. And don’t forget to look at things like asymmetric delays. You need to verify every element in the path.

Synchronization used to be deployed in separate technologies like grandmaster edges and so on. Now sync is being included in all the different technologies we do, such as simple WDM connectivity systems.

We’ve known this was coming for some time and that’s why we acquired Oscilloquartz and built the leading sync and time solution expert. It’s a baseline technology starting to be deployed everywhere and we want our own technologies to support customers as they adopt LTE-Advanced and 5G to enable connected cars, Internet of Things and virtual reality.

Prayson: What’s interesting is that I was under the delusion several years ago that with the advent of packet-based systems the need for synchronization would be gone forever. I was sadly mistaken on that (laughing).

Christoph: It’s even the other way around right? We lost synchronization. It’s also the case today that often the only guy who knew about synchronization is now retired!

Let’s also talk about latency. If you look at 5G requirements for end-to-end latency of 1 millisecond, you need to know each and every asymmetric delay, fiber path and all the boxes and solutions in between. We’re doing a lot of work on latency in, for example, high frequency trading, and finding every 10 nanoseconds of latency, improving it and measuring it.

Security, Availability and Virtualization

Also you see us focusing on security. We’re doing a lot with the ConnectGuard portfolio with Layer 1 security moving up to Layer 2 security or moving to even higher layers in software.

Different availabilities is another very interesting issue. How can we make sure we have solutions available that can easily be five nines or six nines in terms of end performance but on the other hand can go to the other extreme in, let’s say, data center setups where you just over-provision and if something fails you replace it.

Then it all should be measured and assured. ADVA Optical Networking has a long tradition in this area. if you look at our Etherjack or Optojack or Syncjack, this all about basically measuring something, assuring it and enabling our customer to use it as an advantage and to sell it to someone else.

And all of this needs to be open. With our company’s open optical line system, we can connect to anything and even hook into any type of network management or operating system setups down to customer business services and cloud services solutions using white boxes, which are basically pure servers like the ADVA FSP 150vSE.

So if you ask me which of those is the one that will drive our business the most, it’s very hard to say. Probably in sheer volume, the high bandwidth with low cost. In degree of change, I’d say virtualization.

Prayson: Christoph, that’s a great summary of the technology trends that are driving things now. A lot of the drivers that you mentioned, for example security, latency, the bandwidth, are well understood by operators. There are new requirements and they’re becoming more stringent but operators understand what they are.

On the other hand, in a cloud-based system you go from highly reliable nodes or components to unreliable components with reliability in the system. That’s a much different model. The other thing that you mentioned that’s much different is moving from appliances to software.

Do you see those changes as barriers to driving forward on these new technologies? If not, what are the barriers that are going to prevent or inhibit operators from moving forward to respond to the drivers you enumerated.

Christoph: First there are the standard barriers like fear of change. In Germany we have this nice word: Betriebsblindheit. It means putting the blinders on so you don’t really see the new stuff.

Prayson: (laughing) That’s great!

The Problem With Betriebsblindheit

Christoph: I use that word, Betriebsblindheit, with our teams to ensure that we think outside the box.

And one of the things we often see is that customers are driven by short-term optimization.

We see a growing difference between our customers. Some of them may be more aggressive to move to some new solutions that offer minimum amount of change.

On the other hand, other customers may have less baggage, and they probably move faster and ask better questions.

Another big barrier or difference is standardization. In the case of the slow-moving guy, he waits for standardization before pushing it. We have others who don’t really care and just do it and create standards in that way.

At the end of the day any innovative technology needs to prove itself. If it addresses real issues and brings in immediate economic benefit, then it’s easy.

I believe one of the biggest obstacles to innovation is the undervaluation of pure connectivity. To me this is at the heart of everything. Connectivity, programmability, intelligence, whatever – none of this works without creating value for the companies involved.

Innovation doesn’t come for free. It’s easy when something is cheap and makes money, but when a real investment is required you immediately see reluctance and a focus on short-term results.

So, we need very simple business models that value connectivity and help drive innovation and revenue.

Customers and Vendors as Partners

Prayson: You mentioned the need to work very closely with customers. I would take it a step further and say that we and our customers need to act as partners because, in order to move very quickly, we must be closely engaged.

I also think that the operators in many cases have done too good of a job in providing best effort internet and connectivity. Right now, best effort is so good that they have a hard time charging a premium for assured services. So I think your points attributing value to connectivity are very good.

In terms of all of the drivers that you mentioned, there is a lot going on both in the technology field as well as what the customers are doing.

How do you ensure that your team, your engineers and product management people stay up to date? How do you keep them engaged with customers and what’s going on in the industry?

Christoph: That’s not easy. We utilize, of course, all the classical measures such a training new hires and partnerships but ADVA Optical Networking is now not only multi-regional. We are also multi-cultural and multi-technology and it’s all got to come together.

Partnerships are important for bringing solutions to the market and it’s also about smart acquisitions. We did multiple deals in the last 24 months, including Oscilloquartz for leadership in synchronization and Overture for expertise in NFV and virtualization — both very important and strategic pieces.

We’re training our existing people and we have a long tradition of research and prototyping we call advanced technology. We try things out internally or through international projects with partners, customers, research institutions and suppliers.

For that we have a focused advanced technology team, which has the freedom to really try this or that prototype. And the outcome might be even, “it wasn’t a good idea”, or, “it wasn’t good but at least we figured that part”. I’ll add that many of these projects led to current products.

Finally, we’re very active in standards. We drive standards by participating in many of the different standardization bodies.

But the most important thing is to keep listening to our customers, suppliers and partners.

Prayson: That’s good insight. You talked about how important these technologies are in terms of staying engaged with our customers and certainly it’s clear on a strategic and a theoretical level.

Is there a way to put value on the benefits of this innovation for ourselves and our customers? That’s a question we get a lot. How do I know if I’m getting ahead? Am I cutting cost? Am I driving new services? How do we answer that for them and for ourselves?

Christoph: At the end of the day it’s about sustainable, enduring financial success and performance.

Enduring Financial Success and Performance

It’s not a short-term thing but if you’re many years into being successful then obviously you have found some right ways to innovate.

Another gauge is customer satisfaction. We regularly ask our customers to tell us how well we’re doing with regard to innovation, solutions and the way we do business.

Sometimes there’s a lot of benefit from what others are saying about your innovation, especially if it’s very early on in the cycle. Strong public relations can draw new business your way and provide a competitive advantage to gain new customers and revenue.

There are also internal performance metrics in engineering, in operations and services. Innovation can lead to greater efficiency and that is valuable and measureable.

Prayson: Sustained success is certainly an important one. Over the years ADVA Optical Networking has a track record of sustained success, performance and innovation.

It’s been very interesting for me coming into the company recently with the Overture acquisition. The technology available within the company is really amazing.

So, to wrap up, what’s the most surprising thing that’s going on now relating to network innovation?

Christoph: The thing that surprises me most is actually a negative one – that things are moving so slowly.

I think we could move much, much faster. It’s all based on business models, return of invest and being smarter, but I think, if we just jump more, take more risks and just use new technology, it will pay off.

Some customers do get it and they adopt to change very fast. Others don’t but that’s what surprises me the most.

Another thing is the hype. It’s always surprising how some things get very hot and a little bit later they are maybe not so hot anymore and the real work isn’t really done.

In terms of pure technology, the one thing I think is the biggest change and the biggest surprise is definitely virtualization. We can’t virtualize a photon but most things will be virtualized and that goes fast. I think five years from now it will be a very different world.

Prayson: Yes, I agree and I look forward to these next five years. It’s going to be a pretty amazing time in networking. Thank you, Christoph. You’ve shared some great insights.

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