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Jagdeep Singh's Infinera effect 

Jagdeep Singh, who has led Infinera from a start-up of three to a 1000-staff public company, is stepping down in January.

Talking to gazettabyte, he reflects on the ups and downs of being a CEO, his love of running, 40 Gigabit transmission and why he is looking forward to his next role at Infinera.


"We are looking to lead the 40 Gig market, not be first to market.”

Jagdeep Singh, Infinera CEO

Ask Jagdeep Singh about how Infinera came about and there is no mistaking the enthusiasm and excitement in his voice.

During the bubble era of 2000 he started to question whether the push to all-optical networking pursued by numerous start-ups made sense. “The reason for these all-optical device companies was that they were developing the analogue functions needed,” says Singh. “Yet what operators really wanted was access to the [digital] bits.”

This led him to think about optical-to-electrical (O-E) conversion and the digital processing of signals to correct for transmission impairments. “The question then was: could this be done in a low-cost way?” says Singh.  Achieving O-E conversion would also allow access to the bits for add/ drop, switching and grooming functions at the sub-wavelength level before using inverse electrical-to-optical (E-O) conversion to continue the optical transmission.

“We came at this from an orthogonal direction: building lower-cost O-E-O. Was it possible?” says Singh. “The answer was that most of the cost was in the packaging and that led us to think about photonic integration.”

Singh started out with his colleague Drew Perkins (now Infinera’s CTO) with whom he co-founded Lightera, a company acquired by Ciena in 1999.  Then the two met with Dave Welch at a Christmas party in 2000. Welch had been CTO of SDL, a company just acquired by JDS Uniphase. “It was clear that he was not that happy and there were a lot of VCs (venture capitalists) chasing him,” says Singh.  “He (Welch) recognised the power of what we were planning.”  In January 2001 the three founded Infinera.

So why is he stepping down as CEO? The answer is to focus on long-term strategy. And perhaps to reclaim time outside work, given he has a young family.

He may even have more time for running.

Singh typically runs at least two marathons a year. “As a CEO your schedule is fully booked. There is so much stuff there is no time to think.” Running for him is quiet time. “I can get out and recharge the batteries. I find it invaluable. I can process things and it keeps the stress levels down.” 


Being CEO

“There are two roles to being a CEO: running the business – the P&Ls (profit and loss statements), financials, sales – all real-time and urgent; and then there is the second part – setting the product vision: what products will be needed in two, three, four years’ time?” he says.

This second part is particularly important for Infinera given it develops products around its photonic integrated circuit (PIC) designs, requiring a longer development cycle than other optical equipment makers. “We have to get the requirements right up front,” says Singh.  

And it is this part of the CEO’s role, he says, that gets trumped due to real-time tasks that must be addressed. Thus, from January, Singh will become Infinera’s executive chairman focussing exclusively on product planning. “If I had to choose [between the two roles], the longer term stuff is more appealing,” he says.

Looking back over his period as CEO, he believes his biggest achievement has been the team assembled at Infinera. “What I’ve learnt over the years is that the quality of success depends on the quality of the team.

“We started after the telecom bust,” says Singh. “There were world-class people that were never that locked in and [once on board] they knew people that they respected.” Now Infinera has a staff of 1,000, and had gone from a start-up to a publicly-listed company.

One downside of becoming a large company is that Singh regrets no longer personally knowing all his staff. “What I miss is that I knew everyone, I was part of a small team with a lot of energy,” he says.  Another change is all the regulatory, legal and accounting that a public company must do. “I was also free to do and say what I wanted. Now I have to be a lot more careful.”


The Infinera effect

Asked about why Infinera is still not shipping a PIC with 40Gbps line rate channels, it is Singh-as-scrutinised-CEO that kicks in. “If we built 40 Gig purely using off-the-shelf components we’d have a product.” But he argues that the economics of 40 Gigabit-per-second (Gbps) are still not compelling. According to market research firm Ovum, he says, it will only be 2012 when 40Gbps dips below four times the cost of 10Gbps.

Indeed in Q3 2009 shipments of 40Gbps slipped. According to Ovum, this was in part due to what it calls the “Infinera effect” that is lowering the cost of existing 10Gbps technology.  Only when 40Gbps is around 2.5x the cost of 10Gbps that it is likely to take off; the economic rule-of-thumb with all previous optical speed hikes.

“Our goal is to come in with a 40 Gig solution that is economically viable,” says Singh. This is what Infinera is working on with its 10x40Gbps PIC pair of chips that integrate hundreds of optical functions. “With the PIC we are looking to lead the 40 Gig market, not be first to market.”

This year also saw Infinera introduce its second class of platform, the ATN, aimed at metro networks. The platform was developed across three Infinera sites: in Silicon Valley, India and China.

Coupled with Infinera’s DTN, the ATN allows end-to-end bandwidth management of its systems. “Until now we have only played in long-haul; this now doubles the market we play in,” says Infinera's CEO. Italian operator Tiscali announced in December 2009 its plan to deploy Infinera’s systems with the ATN being deployed in 80 metro locations.

How are cheap wavelength-selective switches and tunability impacting Infinera’s business? Singh bats away the question: “We just don’t see it in our space.”

Singh agrees with Infinera’s Dave Welch’s thesis that PICs are optics’ current disruption. What developments can he cite that will indicate this is indeed happening?

There are several examples that would confirm this, he says:  “PICs in adjacent devices such as routers or switches; you would need something like a PIC to reduce the power and space of such platforms.” Other areas of adoption include connecting multiple bays such as required for the largest IP core routers, and even chip-to-chip interconnect.

Surely chip-to-chip is silicon photonics not Infinera’s PICs’ based on indium phosphide technology?  Is silicon photonics of interest to Infinera?

"We are an optical transport company. To generate light over vast distances requires indium phosphide,” says Singh. “But if and when there is a breakthrough in silicon to generate light efficiently, we’d want to take advantage of that.”

One wonders what ideas Singh will come up with on his two-hour runs once he can think beyond the next financial quarter.

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