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Tuesday
Apr042017

An insider's view on the merits of optical integration

One of the pleasures of attending the OFC show, held in Los Angeles last month, is the many conversations possible in one location. The downside is that too many are cut short due to the show's hectic schedule. One exception was a conversation with Valery Tolstikhin (pictured), held in a quiet room prior to the exhibition hall's opening.

Tolstikhin is president and CEO of Intengent, the Ottawa-based consultancy and custom design service provider, and an industry veteran of photonic integration. In 2005 he founded OneChip Photonics, a fabless maker of indium phosphide photonic integrated circuits for optical access

One important lesson he learned at OneChip was how the cost benefit of a photonic integrated circuit (PIC) can be eroded with a cheap optical sub-assembly made from discrete off-the-shelf components. When OneChip started, the selling price for GPON optics was around $100 a unit but this quickly came down to $6. "We needed sales in volumes and they never came close to meeting $6," says Tolstikhin.

OneChip changed strategy, seeing early the emerging opportunity for 100-gigabit optics for the data centre but despite being among the first to demonstrate fully integrated 100-gigabit transmitter and receiver chips – at OFC 2013 –  the company eventually folded.

 

When OneChip started, the selling price for GPON optics was around $100 a unit but this quickly came down to $6

 

Integent can be seen as the photonic equivalent of an electronic ASIC design house that was common in the chip industry, acting as the intermediary between an equipment vendor commissioning a chip design and the foundry making the chip.

Integent creates designs for system integrators which it takes to a commercial foundry for manufacturing. The company makes stand-alone devices, device arrays, and multi-function PICs. Integent uses the regrowth-free taper-assistant vertical integration (TAVI) indium phosphide process of the California-based foundry Global Communication Semiconductors (GCS). "We have also partnered with a prominent PIC design house, VLC Photonics, for PIC layout and verification testing,” says Tolstikhin. Together, Intengent, VLC and GCS offer a one-stop-shop for the development and production of PICs.

 

III-V and silicon photonics

Tolstikhin is a big fan of indium phosphide and related III-V semiconductor materials, pointing out that they can implement all the optical functions required for telecom and datacom applications. He is a firm believer that III-V will continue to be the material system of choice for various applications and argues that silicon photonics is not so much a competitor to III-V but a complement.

"Silicon photonics needs indium-phosphide-based sources but also benefits from III-V modulators and detectors, which have better performance than their silicon photonics counterparts," he says.

He admits that indium phosphide photonics cannot compete with the PIC scalability that silicon photonics offers. But that will benefit indium phosphide as silicon photonics matures. Intengent already benefits from this co-existence, offering specialised indium phosphide photonic chip development for silicon photonics as well.

"Silicon photonics cannot compete with indium phosphide photonics in relatively simple yet highest volume optical components for telecom and datacom transceivers," says Tolstikhin. Partly this is due to silicon photonics' performance inferiority but mainly for economical reasons.

 

Silicon photonics will have its chance, but only where it beats competing technologies on fundamentals, not just cost

 

There are also few applications that need monolithic photonic integration. Tolstikhin highlights coherent optics as one example but that is a market with limited volumes. Meanwhile, the most promising emerging market - transceivers for the data centre, whether 100-gigabit (4x25G NRZ) PSM or CWDM4 designs or in future 400-gigabit (4x100G PAM4) transceivers, will likely be implemented using optical sub-assembly and hybrid integration technologies.

Tolstikhin may be a proponent of indium phosphide but he does not dismiss silicon photonics' prospects: "It will have its chance, but only where it beats competing technologies on fundamentals, not just cost."

One such area is large-scale optoelectronic systems, such as data processors or switch fabrics for large-scale data centres. These are designs that cannot be assembled using discretes and go beyond the scalability of indium phosphide PICs. "This is not silicon photonics-based optical components instead of indium phosphide ones but a totally different system and possibly network solutions," he says. This is also where co-integration of CMOS electronics with silicon photonics makes a difference and can be justified economically.

He highlights Rockley Photonics and Ayar Labs as start-ups doing just this: using silicon photonics for large-scale electro-photonic integration targeting system and network applications. "There may also be more such companies in the making," says Tolstikhin. "And should they succeed, the entire setup of optics for the data centre and the role of silicon photonics could change quite dramatically."

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