For the Web Delivered at Light Speed: Go With the Flow

MIT’s brains have figured out how to deliver a faster Internet using optical connections throughout the entire transmission, which could result in a web that’s up to 1,000 times quicker, is cheaper and more power-efficient than what we have now. But any such innovation would require a replacement of the current style of routers used inside the network — an expensive proposition for network operators, many of which are upgrading their infrastructure with bigger and faster routers designed to carry more traffic.

The breakthroughs, called flow switching, which researchers have been working on for 20 years, essentially keep the optical signals that travel over the long-haul networks as light the entire way through. Normally, the optical signals are translated to digital signals at the router where they can be stored inside the short-term memory in case of a massive inflow of traffic that must be routed across different routes.

With flow switching the light gets sent over dedicated paths, but unlike today’s dedicated bandwidth, traffic can flow over those paths dynamically. Today’s dedicated bandwidth is like a private road, once that dedicated path is built, the traffic can travel across it, but the path risks being empty when no signal is sent or overwhelmed by too much traffic if there’s too much data. The flow switching approach is more dynamic, using algorithms to dynamically allocate light wavelengths based on demand.

These types of technological breakthroughs are key as we want to keep cramming more information through our pipes, while also lowering the overall cost of sending that information. It’s not enough to figure out how to stream millions of HD videos to consumers; it has to cost less to do so. Breakthroughs like flow switching and other optical technologies can deliver cost savings as well as more capacity and faster speed. However, with higher upfront costs associated with essential network equipment replacement, the backbone companies and internet service providers may not be eager to invest, nor may they need to do so for a while.

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