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SFP-DD: Turning the SFP into a 100-gigabit module

Part 2: New optical transceiver MSA

An industry initiative has started to quadruple the data rate of the SFP, the smallest of the pluggable optical modules. The Small Form Factor Pluggable – Double Density (SFP-DD) is being designed to support 100 gigabits by doubling the SFP’s electrical lanes from one to two and doubling their speed.

Scott SommersThe new multi-source agreement (MSA), to be completed during 2018, will be rated at 3.5W; the same power envelope as the current 100-gigabit QSFP module, even though the SFP-DD is expected to be 2.5x smaller in size.

The front panel of a 1-rack-unit box will be able to support up to 96 SFP-DD modules, a total capacity of 9.6 terabits. 

The SFP-DD is adopting a similar philosophy as that being used for the 400-gigabit QSFP-DD MSA: an SFP-DD port will support legacy SFPs modules - the 25-gigabit SFP28 and 10-gigabit SFP - just as the QSFP-DD will be backward compatible with existing QSFP modules.

“Time and time again we have heard with the QSFP-DD that plugging in legacy modules is a key benefit of that technology,” says Scott Sommers, group product manager at Molex and the chair of the new SFP-DD MSA. Sommers is also a co-chair of the QSFP-DD MSA.

Interest in the SFP-DD started among several like-minded companies at the OFC show held in March. Companies such as Alibaba, Molex, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Huawei agreed on the need to extend the speed and density of the SFP similar to how the QSFP-DD is extending the QSFP.

The main interest in the SFP-DD is for server to top-of-rack switch connections. The SFP-DD will support one or two lanes of 28 gigabit-per-second (Gbps) or of 56Gbps using 4-level pulse-amplitude modulation (PAM-4).

“We tried to find server companies and companies that could help with the mechanical form factor like connector companies, transceiver companies and systems companies,” says Sommers. Fourteen promoter companies supported the MSA at its launch in July.


Specification work

The SFP-DD MSA is developing a preliminary hardware release that will be published in the coming months.  This will include the single-port surface mount connector, the cage surrounding it and the module’s dimensions.

The goal is that the module will be able to support 3.5W. “Once we pin down the form factor, we will be able to have a better idea whether 3.5W is achievable,” says Sommers. “But we are very confident with the goal.”

The publication of the mechanical hardware specification will lead to other companies - contributors - responding with their comments and suggestions. “This will make the specification better but it does slow down things,” says Sommers.

The MSA’s attention will turn to the module’s software management specification once the hardware release is published. The software must understand what type of SFP module is plugged into the SFP-DD port, for example.  

Supporting two 56Gbps lanes using PAM-4 means that up to four SFP-DD modules can be interfaced to a 400-gigabit QSFP-DD.  But the QSFP-DD is not the only 400-gigabit module the SFP-DD could be used with in such a ‘breakout’ mode.“I don’t want to discount the OSFP [MSA],” says Sommers. “That is a similar type of technology to the QSFP-DD where it is an 8-channel-enabling form factor.”

The SFP could eventually support a 200-gigabit capacity. “It is no secret that this industry is looking to double speeds every few years,” says Sommers. He stresses this isn't the goal at present but it is there: “This MSA, for now, is really focussed on 25-gigabit non-return-to-zero or 50-gigabit PAM-4.”  



One challenge Sommers highlights for the SFP-DD is achieving a mechanically robust design: achieving the 3.5W as well as the signal integrity given the two lanes of 56Gbps.

The signal integrity advances achieved with the QSFP-DD work will be adopted for the SFP-DD. “That is why we don’t think it is going to take as long as the QSFP-DD,” he says.

The electro-optic components need to be squeezed into a smaller space and with the SFP-DD’s two lanes, there is a doubling of the copper lines going into the same opening. “This is not insurmountable but it is challenging,” says Sommers.


Further reading

Mellanox blog on the SFP-DD, click here

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