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16 May 2011
A £1.7m (€1.95m) pan-European collaborative project to develop the internet access networks of the future will start next month.  Irish firm Intune Networks has received a substantial part of that funding (£520,000) to develop a dynamic architecture for the local access network that will support local services and 1Gbps access speeds while also reducing cost and energy consumption.
The project, called PIANO+ (a rough acronym for "photonics-based internet access networks of the future") is co-funded by the participating national technology funding bodies and the European Commission through its ERA-NET scheme.  Austria, Germany, Israel, Poland and the United Kingdom are taking part.
The project will use fibre-to-the-home equipment from German company KeyMile – these are advanced access devices based on 1Gbps bi-directional Ethernet, which incorporate some additional functionality normally found in broadband remote access servers (BRAS).  Intune Networks is providing the architecture for a collapsed metro and second mile network, which it calls Active Distributed and Dynamic Optical Network Access Systems (ADDONAS), that scales up to 64Tbps total capacity and beyond.
“Every other major [research] programme on next generation access systems is going for passive optical networks, whereas we are proposing an active network that creates a much more valuable supply chain from consumer to service to network operator to equipment vendor,” said John Dunne, chief technology officer at Intune.
Current thinking tends to focus on making the access network completely passive, he says, pushing all possible smart functions deep into the heart of the core network inside massive data centres.  But Dunne believes that this approach simply won’t scale, economically, performance-wise or energy-wise.
The alternative, being explored in the PIANO+ project, is to keep intelligence in the access layer, by creating a fully programmable optical mesh network based on Layer 2 connectivity.  The network contains distributed data centre functionality – i.e. servers, storage, and processing power – to support local services with high quality of service and low latency.  Best-effort internet traffic can be mixed with the services this network will deliver, without any compromise on the quality of the local services.
The project will model the traffic created by low-latency, interactive real-time services and show how this architecture can support a new business model for access networks.  “We are trying to demonstrate that the access and second mile network could play a key role in generating revenues by being actively involved in delivering those services,” said Dunne.
There are a number of other partners in the project.  The Polish Supercomputing Research Group will build a network demonstrator in Poland.  The University of Essex, UK, will be researching the control plane issues of merging the network with the distributed IT infrastructure. And last but not least, components firm the Centre for Integrated Photonics (CIP), will be investigating how optical integration of components could reduce the cost of this solution.
By Pauline Rigby