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May 23, 2018
3:21 AM
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Making The SONET To Ethernet Transition
What you need to know as the move from legacy SONET fiber optic technology to Carrier Ethernet is accelerating.

By: John Shepler

Technology change is something we’re all familiar with. Every year, there’s a new bevy of cell phone models that make the old ones look tired and obsolete. Tablets are moving into to take over from netbooks even before netbooks completed taking over from laptop computers. It’s only in the staid world of telecommunications that technology time stands still... or does it?

From Circuit Switching to Packet Switching
Actually, there’s been a revolution brewing in telecom for decades. It’s all about move from circuit switching to packet switching technologies. Circuit switching got established from the days of Alexander Graham Bell and only became more entrenched as capital investment in central office switches and digital transmission equipment accumulated.

So, what’s wrong with circuit switching? Technically, nothing. It’s a mature technology honed by a century of refinement. So what’s the motivation to move away from a sure thing?

It's The Transition of Network Technology
It’s all about computer networks and especially the Internet. While once there were many architectures and protocols, now the lion’s share is Ethernet. Except for a few special situations that still benefit from non-IP network designs, everything is supporting Ethernet. The economy of scale in manufacturing has operated as a positive feedback loop to ensure that you need a very good reason and deep pockets to select anything but off-the-shelf Ethernet interfaces.

The LAN/WAN Disconnect
The battlefront is at the interface between LANs and the outside world. It’s Ethernet inside and something else outside. That something else is telecom standardized circuit switched wireline and fiber optics. The need to succeed has made the two compatible through specialized interface hardware and software. But how long will this standoff continue?

New Networks Are IP Core
Not much longer by the looks of things. Competitive carriers have build their new networks with IP cores rather than adapting traditional SONET fiber optic switched circuit services to transport their Ethernet offerings. SONET/SDH is the high end of circuit switching development and likely the end of the line for this technology path. It has a maturity level and deployment that far exceeds the upstart Carrier Ethernet. Ethernet is the future, SONET is the present and, more and more, the past. At some point, the momentum will switch and the Ethernet takeover will ensue en-masse.

Accelerating The Change
That point may be sooner than any of us think. As evidence, a major competitive carrier, XO Communications, has announced that they are not planning to buy any more SONET moving forward. That’s especially significant since XO is rolling out a major network upgrade over the next few years. This should put a smile on the face of product managers in charge of Ethernet switches, routers, multiplexers and the like. It should have the opposite effect on those planning development and production of SONET equipment. If more carriers follow suit, you’ll see Ethernet lines becoming more robust and SONET heading for end-of-life management.

Ethernet Gains The Cost Advantage
You can see the handwriting on the wall by comparing Carrier Ethernet line services with their SONET equivalents. On a Mbps and Gbps basis, Ethernet is getting cheaper faster than SONET in most areas. As the price gap widens, IT managers will need more and more justification for choosing SONET over Ethernet. Even if there’s capital investment involved in switching over to all-Ethernet networking, it will increasingly be seen as a smart move.

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