Inphi unveils a second 400G PAM-4 IC family
Tuesday, September 5, 2017 at 10:46AM
Roy Rubenstein in Inphi, OFC 2017, OSFP, PAM-4, Polaris, QSFP-DD, Siddharth Sheth, Vega, semiconductors

Inphi has announced the Vega family of 4-level, pulse-amplitude modulation (PAM-4) chips for 400-gigabit interfaces.

The 16nm CMOS Vega IC family is designed for enterprise line cards and is Inphi’s second family of 400-gigabit chips that support eight lanes of 50-gigabit PAM-4.

Its first 8x50-gigabit family, dubbed Polaris, is used within 400-gigabit optical modules and was announced at the OFC show held in Los Angeles in March.

“Polaris is a stripped-down low-power DSP targeted at optical module applications,” says Siddharth Sheth, senior vice president, networking interconnect at Inphi (pictured). “Vega, also eight by 50-gigabits, is aimed at enterprise OEMs for their line-card retimer and gearbox applications.”  

A third Inphi 400-gigabit chip family, supporting four channels of 100-gigabit PAM-4 within optical modules, will be announced later this year or early next year.


400G PAM-4 drivers

Inphi’s PAM-4 chips have been developed in anticipation of the emergence of next-generation 6.4-terabit and 12.8-terabit switch silicon and accompanying 400-gigabit optical modules such as the OSFP and QSFP-DD form factors.  

Sheth highlights Broadcom’s Tomahawk-III,  start-up Innovium’s Teralynx and Mellanox’s Spectrum-2 switch silicon. All have 50-gigabit PAM-4 interfaces implemented using 25-gigabaud signalling and PAM-4 modulation.

“What is required is that such switch silicon is available and mature in order for us to deploy our PAM-4 products,” says Sheth. “Everything we are seeing suggests that the switch silicon will be available by the end of this year and will probably go into production by the end of next year,” says Sheth.


Several optical module makers are starting to build 8x50-gigabit OSFP and QSFP-DD products 


The other key product that needs to be available is the 400-gigabit optical modules. The industry is pursuing two main form factors: the OSFP and the QSFP-DD. Google and switch maker Arista Networks are proponents of the OSFP form factor while the likes of Amazon, Facebook and Cisco back the QSFP-DD. Google has said that it will initially use an 8x50-gigabit module implementation for 400 gigabit. Such a solution uses existing, mature 25-gigabit optics and will be available sooner than the more demanding 4x100-gigabit design that Amazon, Facebook and Cisco are waiting for. The 4x100 gigabit design requires 50Gbaud optics and a 50Gbaud PAM-4 chip.

Inphi says several optical module makers are starting to build 8x50-gigabit OSFP and QSFP-DD products and that its Polaris and Vega family of chips anticipate such deployments.

“We expect 100-gigabit optics to be available sometime around mid-2018 and our next-generation 100-gigabit PAM-4 will be available in the early part of next year,” says Sheth.

Accordingly, the combination of the switch silicon and optics means that the complete ecosystem will already exist next year, he says



The Polaris chip, used within an optical module, equalises the optical non-linearities of the incoming 50-gigabit PAM-4 signals. The optical signal is created using 25-gigabit lasers that are modulated using a PAM-4 signal that encodes two bits per signal. “When you run PAM-4 over fibre - whether multi-mode or single mode - the signal undergoes a lot of distortion,” says Sheth. “You need the DSP to clean up that distortion.”

The Vega chip, in contrast, sits on enterprise line cards and adds digital functionality that is not supported by the switch silicon. Most enterprise boxes support legacy data rates such as 10 gigabit and 1 gigabit. The Vega chip supports such legacy rates as well as 25, 50, 100, 200 and 400 gigabit, says Sheth.

The Vega chip can add forward-error correction to a data stream and decode it. As well as FEC, the chip also has physical coding sublayer (PCS) functionality. “Every time you need to encode a signal with FEC or decode it, you need to unravel the Ethernet data stream and then reassemble it,” says Sheth.

Also on-chip is a crossbar that can switch any lane to any other lane before feeding the data to the switch silicon.       

Sheth stresses that not all switch chip applications need the Vega. For large-scale data centre applications that use stripped-down systems, the optical module would feed the PAM-4 signal directly into the switch silicon, requiring the use of the Polaris chip only.     

A second role for Vega is driving PAM-4 signals across a system. “If you want to drive 50-gigabit PAM-4 signals electrically across a system line card and noisy backplane then you need a chip like Vega,” says Sheth. 

A further application for the Vega chip is as a ‘gearbox’, converting between 50-gigabit and 25-gigabit line rates. Once high-capacity switch silicon with 50G PAM-4 signals are deployed, the Vega chip will enable the conversion between 50-gigabit PAM-4 and 25-gigabit non-return-to-zero (NRZ) signals.System vendors will then be able to interface 100-gigabit (4x25-gigabit) QSFP28 modules with these new switch chips. 

One hundred gigabit modules will be deployed for at least another three to four years while the price of such modules has come down significantly. “For a lot of the cloud players it comes down to cost: are 128-ports at 100-gigabit cheaper that 32, 400-gigabit modules?” says Sheth. The company says it is seeing a lot of interest in this application.


We expect 100-gigabit optics to be available sometime around mid-2018 and our next-generation 100-gigabit PAM-4 will be available in the early part of next year 



Inphi has announced two Vega chips: a 400-gigabit gearbox and a 400-gigabit retimer and gearbox IC. “We are sampling,” says Sheth. “We have got customers running traffic on their line cards.”  General availability is expected in the first quarter of 2018.

As for the 4x100-gigabit PAM-4 chips, Sheth expects solutions to appear in the first half of next year: “We have to see how mature the optics are at that point and whether something can go into production in 2018.”

Inphi maintains that the 8x50-gigabit optical module solutions will go to market first and that the 4x100-gigabit variants will appear a year later. “If you look at our schedules, Polaris and the 4x100-gigabit PAM-4 chip are one year apart,” he says.

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