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Microsoft rallies vendors to form optics group

Posted: 25 Mar 2015 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Consortium for On-Board Optics?

Sixteen data centre vendors have joined Microsoft in forming the Consortium for On-Board Optics (COBO), an alliance that aims to develop optical communications technologies for server and switch motherboards. The group plans to introduce specifications within a year.

COBO will "define electrical interfaces, management interfaces, thermal requirements and pin-outs ... [for] optical modules that can be mounted or socketed on a network switch or adapter motherboard," according to a press statement from the alliance. It is initially expected to focus on 100 and 400G links.

"The goal is to bring the goodness of faceplate pluggable optics like SFP+ and QSFP+ to the on-board optics market," said Brad Booth, COBO Chair and principal architect for Microsoft's Azure Global Networking Services.

Bringing optical connections to the board helps switch makers break through current limits of how many optical ports can fit on the front panel of a system. "This will permit system OEMs to mount the optical modules in the same manner that they mount switch ICs and in a location that benefits power consumption and heat dissipation," Booth said.

Currently vendors use a variety of proprietary formats for the so called on-board or embedded optics. The COBO specs aim to create a level playing field in which data centre operators can choose interchangeable modules from multiple companies.

Members of COBO so far are Arista Networks, Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Coriant, Dell, Finisar, Inphi, Intel, JDSU, Juniper Networks, Luxtera, Mellanox Technologies, Microsoft, Oclaro, Ranovus, Source Photonics and TE Connectivity.

"On-board optics permits greater switch radix with lower power consumption, which is really important as we continue to increase speed and bandwidth," Booth said.

"The overall market for such optical modules is relatively small, but this initiative has the potential to increase interest," said Chris Cole, a director of transceiver engineering at Finisar.

The COBO spec will cover a variety of technologies. They include VCSEL-based boards such as those made by Finisar and emerging designs using silicon photonics such as those from Mellanox and the members of its Open Optics alliance supporting a version of silicon photonics based on wavelength division multiplexing.

"The combination of open electrical and optical specifications holds the promise of an on board optical module that can provide connectivity to an entire rack of servers through a single fibre with the flexibility to choose the best and most cost-effective technology from a choice of interoperable vendors," said Kevin Dieirling, vice president of marketing at Mellanox, also in an email exchange.

"Silicon photonics can definitely take advantage of on-board optics, but it isn't limited to just that technology," Booth said.

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