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Top trends from ECOC 2014

By Giacomo Losio, head of technology at ProLabs

ECOC 2014, the largest European optical communication conference, was a fascinating show. We saw myriad demonstrations of compact 100G devices in QSFP+ and CFP4 form factor, as well as multi-vendor interoperability of optical links where these two form factors are used. 100G client interfaces have reached a point where they can really enable design of dense systems.

Growth of affordable transceivers

One clear industry trend that could be seen walking around in the exhibition area in Cannes is the growth of the new wave of transceiver suppliers from the Far East which is clearly complementing their current offering of low-end cheap transceivers with more advanced devices in QSFP+, CFP2 and CFP4 form factor.

Simply put, it looks like the technological gap between the traditional incumbent manufacturers and these new players is becoming smaller and smaller every year. This means that in this fast-moving industry (CFP2 was innovative one year ago, now everyone seems to take it for granted) the time that passes between the moment an established vendor starts shipping a new device in volumes and the time when it starts experiencing fierce competition from low-cost vendors is rapidly and continuously shrinking. This trend makes it particularly harder for forerunners to see return on their investments and to be profitable, as highlighted in one particular presentation during the Market Focus conference session.

Focusing on products' manufacturability

Many of the wide-ranging industry contributors in the Market Focus session on photonics integration agreed that the industry needs to focus more on manufacturability of products in order to build an ecosystem of tools, processes and knowledge. This, they argued, was one of the fundamental reasons behind the success of other sectors such as semiconductors.

Silicon photonics, in particular, is a technology which has all the necessary ingredients to become successful in many applications - Datacentre interconnect most of all, as it is well suited for optical integration and can leverage the investments made by the semiconductor industry. Silicon Photonics has also the potential to drive architectural change in networking equipment design by bringing the optical interfaces closer to the data processing chips, permitting the design of products with embedded optical interfaces. Extrapolating this concept, it is fair to say that chips one day will have both electrical and optical interfaces.

Deploying single-mode fibre in the datacentre

Many of the discussions around potential new products and industry trends focussed on the availability of a new class of high speed (40 Gbit/s and 100 Gbit/s) device with reach targeted for datacentre interconnectivity over single mode fibre. Single mode fibre has been chosen because it will be able to provide a more future-proof infrastructure, capable of dealing with the increase of bandwidth demand and future interconnects speeds (400 Gbit/s, and what will come after).

In fact, multimode applications saw their reach constantly reducing going from 1GE to 10GE and beyond, while the IEEE single-mode specification always started at the 10Km mark. This opened a wide gap that the Datacentre industry needed to be addressed, but IEEE has been unable to respond to this need quick enough, leading to the proliferation of multiple independent solutions.

Updating industry standards

This last point is particularly critical since it gave the impression that the calls for industry standards are not being listened to and this has had the additional detrimental effect of spreading the volumes across different technologies. The initial success of 10x10 MSA, publicly sponsored by Google, has been the first sign that the industry felt those institutional standard bodies processes and methodologies were no longer adequate.

The renewed efforts towards affordable datacentre 100G are not being championed by IEEE, which has attempted to tackle the problem but has been unable to find a solution. Conversely, these efforts are coming directly from the industry, which is now divided between three major MSAs (PSM4, CWDM4 and CLR4) plus other proprietary solutions. Such a situation is far from ideal and might not unleash the economies of scale that the optics industry so desperately needs.

ECOC 2014 has indeed been another interesting show which witnessed how much the optical telecommunication industry is progressing and just how passionate the discussions are with regards to its successful transformation.

Giacomo Losio is the head of technology at ProLabs, the leading global independent provider of optical network infrastructure products. Losio has more than 14 years of experience in optical transport systems design and eight years of experience in project and program management. Losio previously served as the lead optical design engineer for the Transceiver Module Group at Cisco Systems, where he covered the product lifecycle, from feature definition to field support.

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