Microsoft shakes up the data centre interconnect market

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OSA Executive Forum 2016 -- The metro market represents the next big opportunity for vendors of data centre interconnect (DCI) equipment, but it seems that not everybody wants new boxes.

One large prospective purchaser of such equipment, Microsoft, says it doesn’t intend to use purpose-built DCI platforms for the sweet spot in its network, namely links of 40km or less.

Instead, Microsoft plans to use a new optical module developed in collaboration with Inphi and other, as yet unnamed, partners that plugs directly into switches and routers, obviating the need for a separate box.

“We’d love to use client side ports rather than an extra box, and to us these products … count as an extra box,” said Tom Issenhuth, optical network architecture for Azure Networking at Microsoft, speaking at the OSA Executive Forum on Monday.

Issenhuth laid out Microsoft’s requirements. Capacity on the fibre is not their key consideration; space and power requirements are paramount. Also, Microsoft is not willing to compromise on density at the faceplate so that longer transmission distances can be achieved.

Having done the analysis, Microsoft decided to go for a direct detect approach.

“We feel that the industry could provide a coherent module at zero capex, but due to the space and power requirements [of the coherent solution] it would still not make sense,” Issenhuth stated.

Although direct detection systems have no digital signal processing to take out optical distortions, this is less of an issue at the relatively short distances under consideration, he says.

What Microsoft would like the industry to provide is a 100G QSFP28 pluggable module, so it decided to give optical components vendors a nudge in the right direction.

Inphi and other components vendors stepped forward and are now building the module, which Microsoft has working in its lab, according to Issenhuth. More details will become available on Tuesday, when the new product is officially unveiled.

The implications for vendors of DCI platforms could be significant. The module is “not a Microsoft exclusive”, so other web-scale companies could adopt the same approach, if it fits their needs.

However, it doesn’t mean that vendors of DCI boxes are out of the picture entirely, according to Jim Theodoras, vice president of global business development at ADVA Optical Networking.

“The optical line shelf does not go away,” he explained. Even if a data centre operator doesn’t want to use a purpose-built DCI platform, they will still need to amplify the DWDM signals coming from the client ports, and multiplex them onto the fibre.

He notes that ADVA’s DCI platform, the CloudConnect, has been designed with an integrated channel multiplexer and amplifier, so it could provide this kind of functionality for Microsoft’s extended-reach client ports (see ADVA unveils ‘all new’ CloudConnect platform for DCI).

And he reminds us that this approach is only applicable to distances of up to 40km; for longer distances, the DCI boxes will still prove very attractive.

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