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Silicon Photonics Action: Kotura announces 4x25G QSFP Engine; Cisco buys Lightwire; Luxtera Raises $21M; ST Micro Deal; Aurrion Gets DARPA Contract - What's Next?

A lot of action in silicon photonics is happening just ahead of the big optical industry trade show OFC-2012 to be held in Los Angeles the week of March 5th. Silicon photonics has tremendous promise, but has struggled to find an entry point. 100Gbps transceiver links appears to be the sweet spot! The data center optics is getting ready to jump from 10G/14Gbps to 25Gbps, but the short reach 25Gbps VCSELs are having significant trouble meeting the required reliability. Silicon photonics companies are focusing on high-speed 4x25G optical interfaces as an entry point, while 25G VCSELs leave the door open. The 4x25G (100Gbps) transceiversconsolidate the line rates of all the major data center protocols: InfiniBand EDR, 100GbE, 32x Fibre Channel, 24G SAS and 16G PCI Express, presenting a great opportunity for component and module vendors.

Kotura 4x25G QSFP
Kotura announced it will be offering an optical engine based on 4-channels at 25Gbps that fits into a QSFP MSA. The key points about this announcement are:

  • The availability of 100G optical engines that other transceiver and AOC companies can use to build products enabling a number of companies to enter the business, creating a healthy 100G ecosystem;

  • Using single-mode fiber means transceivers can reach across large data centers and pass through multiple patch panels; The dual LC connector uses only two single-mode fibers and can easily be field terminated;

  • QSFP packaging means as many as 32 ports can fit into a single top-of-rack switch and connect the switch directly to core routers without all the switching layers and multi-mode fiber to single-mode fiber complications;

  • Transceiver manufacturers can build 100G transceivers, Active Optical Cables (AOCs), and mid-board optic Embedded Optical Modules (EOMs) bringing a slew of new products to the market;

The 10x10 MSA and 4x25G LR4 products have been limited to using the enormous CFP MSA, which LightCounting calls the “Compact Frying Pan” as it consumes up to 32 Watts and the size of two cell phones. The QSFP package is about the size of a package of gum, requiring just 3-4 Watts of power.

The limiting factor for the entire industry has been finding fast enough interconnects. New servers have 10 core microprocessors (four per server), and virtualization software is increasing server utilization efficiency. With 48-60 servers per rack, the aggregate bandwidth hitting the top-of-rack switch will hit 480-600G. This will require four to five 100G up links per rack and large data centers are using 200-500 racks.

Cisco Acquires Lightwire for $271 million
Cisco announced that they will be absorbing startup Lightwire “into the collective” and adding the team to Cisco's Transceiver Modules Group Business Unit and Supply Chain Operations Group where the previous acquisition of Core Optics resides. Lightwire has not introduced a product to the general market yet, however, they have been quietly building devices under contract. They recently received a cash infusion from their venture and corporate investors New Science Ventures, Artiman, and Novitas Capital and an unnamed “strategic partner”, but LightCounting’s best guess is that it was Cisco. Lightwire has also been working with silicon fab foundry Global Foundries, a competitor to TSMC.

What Cisco could build with the Lightwire technologies are EOMs, AOCs and transceivers with a possible reach of at least 2 km and maybe 10 km, linking campus and data centers to the metro loop.

A few years back Cisco added server blades to its product line and started a conflict with its former server partners HP, Dell and IBM. This resulted in Dell buying Force10, IBM buying Blade Network Technologies and HP buying 3Com and 3Par. Currently, Cisco and Dell, IBM and HP all have server and switch product lines. This is likely to result in the system architectures and server/switch business to evolve differently over the next few years. The question LightCounting is asking is whether the system companies go back to proprietary optical interfaces, leaving transceiver MSAs behind.

Luxtera/Molex
Molex had a private showing of its 4x28G transceiver technology at the SC11 supercomputer show in November 2011. Molex bought the active optical cable business from Luxtera but the rest of Luxtera is still independent and is building new silicon photonics chips. Luxtera announced $21 million funding round to develop the company’s next generation silicon photonics chips. They also announced a deal with chip giant ST Micro to develop a dedicated silicon photonics line using a 300-mm wafer technology.

Aurrion
Founded in 2007, Aurrion is a privately-held, venture-funded company located in Santa Barbara, CA. Their core technology was developed at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Aurrion has been awarded a $13.9 million Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) multi-year R&D contract through the Electronic-Photonic Heterogeneous Integration (E-PHI) program.

Kotura, Luxtera and Lightwire’s design approach uses a separate continuous wave laser flip-chip bonded to a silicon photonics chip that contains modulators and all the transistor-based control and interface electronics on one chip. Kotura uses a Franz-Keldysh modulator, Luxtera a short-path Mach-Zehnder and Lightwire uses a capacitive-based modulation technique. All these modulation techniques enable very high bandwidth devices with low power consumption and provide a future path to modulation as high as 40Gbps per channel. Kotura, Luxtera and Lightwire’s silicon photonics optical engines will enable creating pluggable transceivers, Active Optical Cables and Embedded Optical Modules for mid-board optics. Also, FPGA vendors Altera and Xilinx have been talking about optically-enabled FPGAs with small optical engines mounted on the chip package that will bring optical links all the way to a big chip.


What Does All This Mean for the Transceiver Business?
100G QSFP is clearly the next war zone in data center transceivers and if silicon photonics companies can deliver what they promise and at the right price, these products will be a game changer. If Kotura can supply transceiver OEMs with parts at the right price, it could spell the end to the 10 x 10 MSA which is significantly more complicated to build and likely to be more costly. The 10 x 10 MSA has gained respectable traction in the marketplace, while the first generation CFP-based 4 x 25 LR4 transceivers have been very expensive. Both use the monstrous CFP MSA with promises of future packages of CFP/2 and CFP/4. Soon Luxtera and Kotura will go head-to-head with the 10 x 10 MSA and 4 x 25 LR4 transceivers.

As the industry tries to adapt to the exponential growth of data traffic, (both on the Internet and inside the data center), the industry has reached a point of craziness not seen since 2000. The IEEE committees are overwhelmed with new proposals for everything from optical backplanes going out to one terabit long-haul. The proliferation of proposed new MSAs has become near insanity with new ones being proposed nearly every day to adapt to the 25Gbps signaling, power consumption and size, using single mode and multimode fiber.

The Cisco acquisition of Lightwire will cause server and switch companies to evaluate their interconnect strategies, seeing that Cisco has internal 100G long-haul and data center transceiver technologies. This may trigger a round of acquisitions of silicon photonics and possibly even transceiver companies -
similar to the acquisitions made last year by the large cable and connector companies Molex/Luxtera, FCI/MergeOptics, TE/Zarlink, and Samtec/AlpenIO. Component and module companies with innovative technologies and products may suddenly become “hot properties”!

Brad Smith, VP & Chief Analyst, Brad@LightCounting.com

NEW REPORT!�� LightCounting analyses all this in our new report titled, AOCs Supercomputers-to -SmartPhones & Everything In Between; Inside and Out. This report details annual shipments, revenues, average selling prices from 2007 to 2011 and forecasts until 2016 of the technologies, market trends, protocol transitions, data rates, and MSAs. It also includes a review of the expansion of AOCs into new market segments of disk and SSD storage, GPU clusters, and subsystems and board-level interconnects using SAS and PCI Express AOCs. Lastly, analysis of embedded AOCs soon to be used in mobile devices such as ultrabooks, tablets and smartphones for high-speed signaling in high EMI environments. More information on the report is available at (www.LightCounting.com/Reports.cfm)

LightCounting at OFC/NFOEC 2012:
The LightCounting team will be at OFC/NFOEC 2012 at the Los Angeles Convention Center from March 6-8, 2012. Learn more about trends in Optical Ethernet and the Data Center during two panel presentations in the Theatre II, LA Convention Center to be hosted during the exhibition.

Lighting Up the Data Center

March 6, 2012 from 3:30-5:00 pm PT

Next-Generation 100G Optical Ethernet

March 7, 2012 from 1:00-2:00 pm PT

About LightCounting: LightCounting LLC is the premier optical communications market research company, offering semi-annual market update, forecast and state of the industry reports based on analysis of publicly available information and confidential data provided by more 20 leading module and component vendors. LightCounting is the optical communications market’s source for accurate, detailed and relevant information necessary for doing business in today’s highly competitive market environment. Privately held, LightCounting is headquartered in Eugene, Oregon. For more information: www.LightCounting.com or 408.962.4851.