ESnet Team Showcases New Services, Pushes Networking Boundaries at OFC2023

ESnet software engineers Sarah Larsen, Dan Doyle, and Bruce Mah at ESnet’s High Touch demonstration booth

After a pandemic-related in-person hiatus, the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exhibition (OFC), sponsored by Optica, IEEE Communication Society, and IEEE Photonics Society, resumed operations with a sold-out event in March 2023 at the San Diego Convention center. More than 11,500 participants and 515 exhibitors attended this global event for optical communications and networking, including almost two dozen from ESnet. Planning & Architecture Acting Group Lead Chris Tracy led ESnet’s multifaceted involvement at OFC23, which ranged from a booth demonstrating ESnet’s High Touch project and panel discussion to helping implement OFCnet, an unconventional high-speed network connecting the show floor to a research center in Chicago. 

Staffed by ESnet software engineers Bruce Mah, Sarah Larsen, and Dan Doyle, the ESnet booth presented a high-level technical overview and showed examples of data and analysis from the High-Touch system being deployed in ESnet6, the latest version of ESnet’s backbone network for supporting scientific collaborations and research around the globe.​ The High-Touch project uses a combination of software and programmable, off-the-shelf hardware to deliver new network services. Its first applications provide high-precision network telemetry, including summarization of network flows and capture of packet headers, which are computed from unsampled streams of packets from multiple 100GE and 400GE links. This demonstration relied heavily on the efforts of ESnet’s Infrastructure team to install and configure dozens of data collection servers across ESnet’s network footprint.

ESnet High-Touch Architecture and Design: This diagram shows the flow of packets and network measurements through ESnet’s High-Touch system, which uses a combination of programmable, off-the-shelf hardware and software to provide high-precision network telemetry.

ESnet Executive Director Inder Monga and Chris also realized that OFC2023 offered potential for demonstrating network capabilities that went beyond the exhibition floor. Prior to OFC2022, there was no high-speed, “external” network connectivity at the event suitable for data-intensive demonstrations. The conference consisted of technical talks about papers that were being published and vendor booths. At OFC2022, Optica, Lumen, CENIC, Ciena and Smart City successfully showed in a modest proof of concept that external fiber could be brought into the convention center so that a live demonstration could be run on the show floor. For OFC2023, Ciena’s office of the CTO – who was leading the OFCnet effort – approached ESnet about demonstrating high-performance networking applications as well as emerging technologies, and more broadly, bringing some networking focus into the conference.

Working with Ciena staff, ESnet Network Services Optical Network Group Lead Patrick Dorn and Network Engineers Michael Blodgett, Kate Robinson, and Nathan Miller helped build an un-regenerated 400 Gbps link between the OFC show floor in San Diego and the StarLight Data Center in Chicago. “Un-regenerated” means the signal remains solely in the optical domain, e.g. as wavelengths of light, not an electrical signal, for transcontinental distances (more than 4,600 kilometers). 

Another interesting feature of this demonstration was that the ESnet team connected ESnet6’s production Infinera FlexILS line system to a Cisco NCS 1010 line system (provided by Cisco to support OFCnet), effectively bridging the purpose-built OFC exhibition network to a live, nation-scale infrastructure. In addition to the Infinera and Cisco line systems, Ciena provided the ultra-long-haul transponder equipment necessary to communicate over such distances, plus the engineering expertise – along with staff from Cisco, ESnet and CENIC – to ensure it all worked. 

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Using the high-speed channel ESnet established between San Diego and Chicago, researchers from Northwestern University’s International Center for Advanced Internet Research (iCAIR) could showcase data transfer applications being used to move massive scientific datasets. By helping to implement this somewhat unconventional infrastructure, the ESnet team sought to show what might someday be possible when networks can transport 400 Gigabit Ethernet over such long distances without relying on bonding two 200 Gbps wavelengths using inverse muxing. 

Some of the ESnet team at OFC23

In addition to the two demonstrations, ESnet staff participated in multiple panel discussions and a bird of a feather (BoF) event at OFC23. For a panel on how high performance research networks continue to drive fundamental science and innovation, Chris Tracy and others used OFCnet and its connection to an external Research & Education network to discuss data transfer for data intensive science, detailed monitoring of science flows within the network, network security considerations in the research network environment, and applications like distributed computing that take advantage of these networks. At the BoF event, Inder presented, while Chris, ESnet staff, and other OFCnet volunteers brainstormed ideas for how OFCnet might evolve as a next-generation optical photonic network for OFC2024. One recommendation: a Sunday workshop titled: “How Can OFC with a Real-Life Testbed Accelerate Innovation in the Design and Operation of Next Generation Optical Photonic Networks?” The BoF participants believe this would provide an opportunity to invite speakers and publish papers within the context of the workshop for these kinds of networking-related topics.

Planning for next year’s iteration of OFCnet (March 24-28, 2024) has already kicked off, with ESnet once again participating in a leadership role. The goals for OFCnet24 are ambitious. The volunteer team hopes to attract attendees from different communities, such as networking science (academia and research labs); make it possible to showcase high performance networking application use cases and other emerging technologies – turning the exhibits floor as a science accelerator; and bridge the exhibit and technical programs by offering the opportunity to present advanced technical papers with live demos. 

“It was great to be able to demonstrate some of the innovative services we’re delivering through the High Touch project,” said Chris. “And of course we welcome any opportunity for ESnet to participate in something such as OFCnet that advances the state of the art for networking and allows us to showcase emerging technologies on our network. Next year is going to be even more exciting.” 

Marc Lyonnais (right), OFCnet chair and director of external research at Ciena, presented Planning & Architecture Acting Group Lead Chris Tracy (left) and Executive Director Inder Monga (center) with a plaque in thanks for ESnet’s OFCnet efforts

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