The Internet is on the verge of overheating, as big network routers are forced to sort through more and more data packets. One solution is to install photonic routers that leave data in the form of light, thereby avoiding unnecessary electronic processing. Researchers at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs and LGS Innovations, both in New Jersey, have built an operational photonic router prototype that could conceivably manage hundreds of terabits of data per second.
The DARPA-funded IRIS project is unique among other photonic routers in that it separates the two main jobs of a router: switching where packets go and managing when packets leave. This division of labor makes it easy to scale the design up for higher data rates. Like a traditional router, IRIS is connected to multiple optical fibers as input and output. Each fiber carries several wavelengths of light that encode their own separate stream of data packets. IRIS only reads and electronically processes the address header of each incoming data packet. The actual information contained in the packet is held temporarily inside a small integrated optical buffer until its time of departure. "The packet does not get converted into an electronic signal at any point," says Jurgen Gripp of Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent. This can provide power savings over electronic routers in many but not all cases.
Gripp and his team members designed and built IRIS in such a way that light packets travel on photonic integrated circuits. "The level of integration of optical components is a breakthrough," Gripp says. The researchers have tested the IRIS prototype on a network testbed and are now preparing to hook it up to commercial routers so that real Internet traffic can flow through it.
The research is being presented at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC) -- the world's largest international conference on optical communication and networking -- from March 21-25 at the San Diego Convention Center.
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