New design could make the internet 100 times as fast

A new network design could increase internet speeds by 100 times, by removing the need to convert optical signals to electrical ones.

A group of MIT researchers  has demonstrated a new way of organizing optical networks that, in most cases, would eliminate the need for conversion.

Currently, when optical signals coming from different directions reach a router at the same time, they are converted to electrical signals so that the router can store them in memory.

But MIT’s approach, called ‘flow switching’, is claimed to solve this problem. Between locations that exchange large volumes of data — say, Los Angeles and New York City — flow switching would establish a dedicated path across the network.

For certain wavelengths of light, routers along that path would accept signals coming in from only one direction and send them off in only one direction. Since there’s no possibility of signals arriving from multiple directions, there’s never a need to store them in memory.

The team has performed mathematical analyses of flow-switched networks’ capacity and has tried out ideas on a small experimental optical network that runs along the Eastern Seaboard.

They say flow switching can easily increase the data rates of optical networks 100-fold – and possibly 1,000-fold – with

further improvements to the network management scheme.

Ori Gerstel, a principal engineer at Cisco Systems, says the chief obstacle to the adoption of flow switching will be economic, as it would mean replacing existing internet routers. But, he says, it’s not clear that there’s currently enough demand for a faster internet to warrant that expense.

“Flow switching works fairly well for fairly large demand – if you have users who need a lot of bandwidth and want low delay

through the network,” Gerstel says. “But most customers are not in that niche today.”

But Chan points to the explosion of the popularity of both internet video and high-definition television in recent years. If those two trends converge and people start calling for high-definition video feeds directly to their computers – flow switching could make financial sense.