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COBO looks inside and beyond the data centre 

The Consortium of On-Board Optics is working on 400 gigabit optics for the data centre and also for longer-distance links. COBO is a Microsoft-led initiative tasked with standardising a form factor for embedded optics.

Established in March 2015, the consortium already has over 50 members and expects to have early specifications next year and first hardware by late 2017.


Brad Booth

Brad Booth, the chair of COBO and principal architect for Microsoft’s Azure Global Networking Services, says Microsoft plans to deploy 100 gigabit in its data centres next year and that when the company started looking at 400 gigabit, it became concerned about the size of the proposed pluggable modules, and the interface speeds needed between the switch silicon and the pluggable module.

“What jumped out at us is that we might be running into an issue here,” says Booth.

This led Microsoft to create the COBO industry consortium to look at moving optics onto the line card and away from the equipment’s face plate. Such embedded designs are already being used for high-performance computing, says Booth, while data centre switch vendors have done development work using the technology.

On-board optics delivers higher interface densities, and in many cases in the data centre, a pluggable module isn’t required. “We generally know the type of interconnect we are using, it is pretty structured,” says Booth. But the issue with on-board optics is that existing designs are proprietary; no standardised form factor exists.

“It occurred to us that maybe this is the problem that needs to be solved to create better equipment,” says Booth. Can the power consumed between switch silicon and the module be reduced? And can the interface be simplified by eliminating components such as re-timers?

“This is worth doing if you believe that in the long run - not the next five years, but maybe ten years out - optics needs to be really close to the chip, or potentially on-chip,” says Booth.


400 gigabit

COBO sees 400 gigabit as a crunch point. For 100 gigabit interconnect, the market is already well served by various standards and multi-source agreements so it makes no sense for COBO to go head-to-head here. But should COBO prove successful at 400 gigabit, Booth envisages the specification also being used for 100, 50, 25 and even 10 gigabit links, as well as future speeds beyond 400 gigabit.  

The consortium is developing standardised footprints for the on-board optics. “If I want to deploy 100 gigabit, that footprint will be common no matter what the reach you are achieving with it,” says Booth. “And if I want a 400 gigabit module, it may be a slightly larger footprint because it has more pins but all the 400 gigabit modules would have a similar footprint.” 

COBO plans to use existing interfaces defined by the industry. “We are also looking at other IEEE standards for optical interfaces and various multi-source agreements as necessary,” says Booth. COBO is also technology agnostic; companies will decide which technologies they use to implement the embedded optics for the different speeds and reaches.


“This is worth doing if you believe that in the long run - not the next five years, but maybe ten years out - optics needs to be really close to the chip, or potentially on-chip."



Another issue the consortium is focussing on the reliability of on-board optics and whether to use socketed optics or solder the module onto the board. This is an important consideration given that is it is the vendor’s responsibility to fix or replace a card should a module fail.

This has led COBO to analyse the causes of module failure. Largely, it is not the optics but the connections that are the cause. It can be poor alignment with the electrical connector or the cleanliness of the optical connection, whether a pigtail or the connectors linking the embedded module to the face plate. “The discussions are getting to the point where the system reliability is at a level that you have with pluggables, if not better,” says Booth.


Dropping below $1-per-gigabit

COBO expects the cost of its optical interconnect to go below the $1-per-gigabit industry target. “The group will focus on 400 gigabit with the perception that the module could be four modules on 100 gigabit in the same footprint,” says Booth. Using four 100 gigabit optics in one module saves on packaging and the printed circuit board traces needed.

Booth says that 100 gigabit optics is currently priced between $2 and $3-per-gigabit. “If I integrate that into a 400 gigabit module, the price-per-gig comes down significantly” says Booth. “All the stuff I had to replicate four times suddenly is integrated into one, cutting costs significantly in a number of areas.” Significantly enough to dip below the $1-per-gigabit, he says.


Power consumption and line-side optics

COBO has not specified power targets for the embedded optics in part because it has greater control of the thermal environment compared to a pluggable module where the optics is encased in a cage. “By working in the vertical dimension, we can get creative in how we build the heatsink,” says Booth. “We can use the same footprint no matter whether it is 100 gigabit inside or 100 gigabit outside the data centre, the only difference is I’ve got different thermal classifications, a different way to dissipate that power.”        

The consortium is investigating whether its embedded optics can support 100 gigabit long-haul optics, given such optics has traditionally been implemented as an embedded design. “Bringing COBO back to that market is extremely powerful because you can better manage the thermal environment,” says Booth. And by removing the power-hungry modules away from the face plate, surface area is freed up that can be used for venting and improving air flow.

“We should be considering everything is possible, although we may not write the specification on Day One,” says Booth. “I’m hoping we may eventually be able to place coherent devices right next to the COBO module or potentially the optics and the coherent device built together.

“If you look at the hyper-scale data centre players, we have guys that focus just as much on inside the data centre as they do on how to connect the data centres in within a metro area, national area and then sub-sea,” says Booth. “That is having an impact because when we start looking at what we want to do with those networks, we want to have some level of control on what we are doing there and on the cost.

“We buy gazillions of optical modules for inside the data centre. Why is it that we have to pay exorbitant prices for the ones that we are not using inside [the data centre],” he says.


“I can’t help paint a more rosier picture because when you have got 1.4 million servers, if I end up with optics down to all of those, that is a lot of interconnect“


Market opportunities

Having a common form factor for on-board optics will allow vendors to focus on what they do best: the optics. “We are buying you for the optics, we are not buying you for the footprint you have on the board,” he says. 

Booth is sensitive to the reservations of optical component makers to such internet business-led initiatives. “It is a very tough for these guys to extend themselves to do this type of work because they are putting a lot of their own IP on the line,” says Booth. “This is a very competitive space.”

But he stresses it is also fiercely competitive between the large internet businesses building data centres. “Let’s sit down and figure out what does it take to progress this industry. What does it take to make optics go everywhere?”

Booth also stresses the promising market opportunities COBO can serve such as server interconnect.

“When I look at this market, we are talking about doing optics down to our servers,” says Booth. “I can’t help paint a more rosier picture because when you have got 1.4 million servers, if I end up with optics down to all of those, that is a lot of interconnect.“


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