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COBO targets year-end to complete specification

Part 3: 400-gigabit on-board optics

  • COBO will support 400-gigabit and 800-gigabit interfaces 
  • Three classes of module have been defined, the largest supporting at least 17.5W 

The Consortium for On-board Optics (COBO) is scheduled to complete its module specification this year.

A draft specification defining the mechanical aspects of the embedded optics - the dimensions, connector and electrical interface - is already being reviewed by the consortium’s members.

Brad Booth“The draft specification encompasses what we will do inside the data centre and what will work for the coherent market,” says Brad Booth, chair of COBO and principal network architect for Microsoft’s Azure Infrastructure.

COBO was established in 2015 to create an embedded optics multi-source agreement (MSA). On-board optics have long been available but until now these have been proprietary solutions. 

“Our goal [with COBO] was to get past that proprietary aspect,” says Booth. “That is its true value - it can be used for optical backplane or for optical interconnect and now designers will have a standard to build to.” 


The draft specification encompasses what we will do inside the data centre and what will work for the coherent market



The COBO modules are designed to be interchangeable. Unlike front-panel optical modules, the COBO modules are not ‘hot-pluggable’ - they cannot be replaced while the card is powered. But the design allows for COBO modules to be interchanged.  

The COBO design supports 400-gigabit multi-mode and single-mode optical interfaces. The electrical interface chosen is the IEEE-defined CDAUI-8, eight lanes each at 50 gigabits implemented using a 25-gigabit symbol rate and 4-level pulse-amplitude modulation (PAM-4). COBO also supports an 800-gigabit interface using two tightly-coupled COBO modules.     

The consortium has defined three module categories that vary in length. The module classes reflect the power envelope requirements; the shortest module supports multi-mode and the lower-power module designs while the longest format supports coherent designs. “The beauty of COBO is that the connectors and the connector spacings are the same no matter what length [of module] you use,” says Booth.

The COBO module is described as table-like, a very small printed circuit board that sits on two connectors. One connector is for the high-speed signals and the other for the power and control signals. “You don't have to have the cage [of a pluggable module] to hold it because of the two-structure support,” says Booth.

To be able to interchange classes of module, a ‘keep-out’ area is used. This area refers to board space that is deliberately left empty to ensure the largest COBO module form factor will fit. A module is inserted onto the board by first pushing it downwards and then sliding it along the board to fit the connection.

Booth points out that module failures are typically due to the optical and electrical connections rather than the optics itself. This is why the repeated accuracy of pick-and-place machines are favoured for the module’s insertion. “The thing you want to avoid is having touch points in the field,” he says.   



working group was set up after the Consortium first started to investigate using the MSA for coherent interfaces. This work has now been included in the draft specification. “We realised that leaving it [the coherent work] out was going to be a mistake,” says Booth.

The main coherent application envisaged is the 400ZR specification being developed by the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF)

The OIF 400ZR interface is the result of Microsoft’s own Madison project specification work. Microsoft went to the industry with several module requirements for metro and data centre interconnect applications.

Madison 1.0 was a two-wavelength 100-gigabit module using PAM-4 that resulted in Inphi’s 80km ColorZ module that supports up to 4 terabits over a fibre. Madison 1.5 defines a single-wavelength 100-gigabit module to support 6.4 to 7.2 terabits on a fibre. “Madison 1.5 is probably not going to happen,” says Booth. “We have left it to the industry to see if they want to build it and we have not had anyone come forward yet.”

Madison 2.0 specified a 400-gigabit coherent-based design to support a total capacity of 38.4 terabits - 96 wavelengths of 400 gigabits.

Microsoft initially envisioned a 43 gigabaud 64-QAM module. However, the OIF's 400ZR project has since adopted a 60-gigabaud 16-QAM module which will achieve either 48 wavelengths at 100GHz spacing or 64 wavelengths at 75GHz spacing, capacities of 19.2Tbps and 25.6Tbps, respectively. 


In 2017, the number of coherent metro links Microsoft will use will be 10x greater than the number of metro and long-haul coherent links it used in 2016.


Once Microsoft starting talking about Madison 2.0, other large internet content providers came forward saying they had similar requirements which led to the initiative being driven into the OIF. The result is the 400ZR MSA that the large-scale data centre players want to be built by as many module companies as possible.

Booth highlights the difference in Microsoft’s coherent interface volume requirements just in the last year. In 2017, the number of coherent metro links Microsoft will use will be 10x greater than the number of metro and long-haul coherent links it used in 2016.

“Because it is an order of magnitude more, we need to have some level of specification, some level of interop because now we're getting to the point where if I have an issue with any single supplier, I do not want my business impeded by it,” he says.     

Regarding the COBO module, Booth stresses that it will be the optical designers that will determine the different coherent specifications possible. Thermal simulation work already shows that the module will support 17.5W and maybe more.

“There is a lot more capability in this module that there is in a standard pluggable only because we don't have the constraint of a cage,” says Booth. “We can always go up in height and we can always add more heat sink.”

Booth says the COBO specification will likely need a couple more members’ reviews before its completion. “Our target is still to have this done by the end of the year,” he says.


Amended on Sept 4th, added comment about the 400ZR wavelength plans and capacity options

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