Despite COVID-19, OFC 2020, the Optical Fiber Conference, actually took place in San Diego from March 10-12, and I attended. Can you believe it? It feels like an age ago now, especially since those of us in California have been ordered to shelter in place, with no businesses allowed to open except for grocery stores, pharmacies, gas stations, hardware stores, and laundromats. Every day brings a new world of restrictions and revelations and now normal life, even last weeks’ no-touching regimen, seems unreachably distant.
So how was attendance?
You’re probably wondering how many people attended the conference, 12, 20, 25? It wasn’t that bad. I have no official figures, but I estimate attendance at 10-20% of normal rates. The opening keynotes attracted at least 200 people and all three speakers. Keynotes aside, I attended only the talks at the three stages in the expo hall. This is my habit most years and it usually keeps me busy. This year, I credit the OFC staff — from OSA and IEEE — with organizing as much remote participation as possible within a week of the conference, and thank heavens for that, but the programming was still sparse. Of the 33 scheduled programs in the expo theaters, 18 were canceled. Many of those that went ahead featured fewer presenters, remote presenters or both.
For example, the Data Center Summit was supposed to have a keynote speaker, followed by a five-person panel plus a moderator. I was the only panelist in attendance, and no other panelist participated remotely. The panel’s topic was “Data Center 2020 — Less Hyperscale and More Colocation and Compute at the Edge” and my talk was titled, “SD-WAN: Genesis of Edge Computing Platforms.” In essence, I made the case that all these cool Edge applications will need something to run on and the obvious first candidate is equipment that’s already there, namely SD-WAN facilities. These are being rolled out extremely rapidly to varying degrees of “Edginess”. Instead of seven minutes to present, I was gifted almost 20. Then the guest moderator, Dr. Tom Giallorenzi, a pioneer in optical sensing and now with OSA, conducted a fireside chat with me on all aspects of the edge. The session was recorded for video playback, at least for those registered. Several dozen people attended live with more watching and submitting questions online.
The Network Operator Summit ended up consisting of just one presentation, but a dazzling one at that, given by Dr. I Chih-Lin of China Mobile where she is basically CTO for wireless. Dr. I presented 5G as a revolutionary transformation in both technology and ecosystem with emphasis on the O-RAN Alliance, where she asserts a lot of leadership. Her data on the deployment of 5G base stations in China was impressive: 50,000 at the end of 2019 and 350,000 predicted for the end of 2020 for China Mobile alone. She also described how they installed 5G base stations and infrastructure in three days last month in Wuhan to serve the new hospitals. In the opening plenary Dr. Qi Bi of China Telecom also discussed 5G and lamented the lack of a single GSMA standard that works for all three main application areas: eMBB, uRLLC, and mMTC. He also dared to mention 6G in the context of its requiring 2 nm chip line widths versus 7 nm for 5G.
Main theme: open systems
For component vendors, OFC is their main event of the year and they dominated OFC 2020, especially in the absence of the system vendors prohibited from physical participation. Upstairs in the conference sessions the emphasis was on pure optical technologies and photonics with a surprising uptick in discussions about quantum optics. But from my systems vantage point the key theme was open systems, including OpenROADM, O-RAN, open multivendor networks, and open-source software for virtualized operations — China Mobile, AT&T, China Telecom, Orange, and Google being the most vocal. Some vendors made a vain attempt to illustrate the disadvantages of disaggregation over integrated vendor equipment; I thought they were rowing against the waterfall.
The empty expo
With only component companies present, and not a lot of those, the expo wasn’t exactly Fenway Park in January, but it was close. (See featured image above for opening morning at OFC and photo below). I felt bad for the booth staff who mostly had no customers. By far the best display in the expo was the OpenROADM demo put together by the University of Texas at Dallas with their partners AT&T, Orange, Ciena, Cisco, ECI, Fujitsu, Infinera, and Juniper. I loved that they had three OpenFlow controllers provisioning a federated edge-computing cluster in the optical, packet, and computing domains.
Another small thrill: In an evening keynote Infinera founder David Welch celebrated 50 years of optical communication with a timeline of the main milestones in the technology he believes underlies all of society’s important advances since 1970. On the timeline there was a point for 2011 labeled “OpenFlow SDN Standard.” Made my day.
OFC 2021 will be held from March 30-April 1 in San Francisco. The organizing team is squirming with energy to make up for a hampered conference this year. Perhaps more of it will be virtual, but nothing can replace the casual, the accidental, and the unexpected encounters that I enjoy at a face-to-face gathering, even one with such a small turnout as OFC 2020. And thankfully, there was no cheesy entertainment in the expo.