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Companies gear up to make 800 Gig modules a reality

Nine companies have established a multi-source agreement (MSA) to develop optical specifications for 800-gigabit pluggable modules.


Maxim Kuschnerov

The MSA has been created to address the continual demand for more networking capacity in the data centre, a need that is doubling roughly every two years. The largest switch chips deployed have a 12.8 terabit-per-second (Tbps) switching capacity while 25.6-terabit and 51-terabit chips are in development. 

“The MSA members believe that for 25.6Tbps and 51.2Tbps switching silicon, 800-gigabit interconnects are required to deliver the required footprint and density,” says Maxim Kuschnerov, a spokesperson for the 800G Pluggable MSA.

A 1-rack-unit (1RU) 25.6-terabit switch platform will use 32, 800-gigabit modules while a 51.2-terabit 2RU platform will require 64.



The founding members of the 800G MSA are Accelink, China Telecommunication Technology Labs, H3C, Hisense Broadband, Huawei Technology, Luxshare, Sumitomo Electric Industries, Tencent, and Yamaichi Electronics. Baidu, Inphi and Lumentum have since joined the MSA.

The MSA has been founded now to ensure that there will be optical and electrical components for 800-gigabit modules when 51.2-terabit platforms arrive in 2022.

And an 800-gigabit module will be needed rather than a dual 400-gigabit design since the latter will not be economical. 

“Historically, the cost of optical short-reach interfaces has always scaled with laser count,” says Kuschnerov. “Pluggables with 8, 10 or 16 lasers have never been successful in the long run.” 

He cites such examples as the first 100-gigabit module implemented using 10x10-gigabit channels, and the early wide-channel 400 Gigabit Ethernet designs such as the SR16 parallel fibre and the FR8 specifications. The yield for optics doesn’t scale in the same way as CMOS for parallel designs, he says. 

That said, the MSA will investigate several designs for the different reaches. For 100m, 8-channel and 4-channel parallel fibre designs will be explored while for the longer reaches, single-fibre coarse wavelength division multiplexing (CWDM) technology will be used.


Shown from left to right are a PSM8 and a PSM4 module for 100m spans, and the CWDM4 design for 500m and 2km reaches. Source: 800G Pluggable MSA.

"Right now, we are discussing several technical options, so there's no conclusion as to which design is best for which reach class," says Kuschnerov.

The move to fewer channels is similar to how 400 Gigabit Ethernet modules have evolved: the 8-channel FR8 and LR8 module designs address early applications but, as demand ramp, they have made way for more economical four-channel FR4 and LR4 designs


Specification work 

The MSA will focus on several optical designs for the 800G Pluggable MSA, all using 112Gbps electrical input signals.

The first MSA design, for applications up to 100m, will explore 8x100-gigabit optical channels as a fast-to-market solution. This is a parallel single-mode 8-channel (PSM8) design, with each 100-gigabit channel carried over a dedicated fibre. The module will use 16 fibres overall: eight for input and eight for output. The MSA will also explore a PSM4 design - 'the real 800G' - where each fibre carries 200 gigabits.  

The CWDM designs, for 500m and 2km, will require a digital signal processor (DSP) to implement four-level pulse-amplitude modulation (PAM4) signalling that generates the 200-gigabit channels. An optical multiplexer and demultiplexer will also be needed for the two designs.  


The scope of the MSA's 800-gigabit focus (bottom left). Source: 800G Pluggable MSA

The MSA will explore the best technologies for each of the three spans. The modulation technologies to be investigated include silicon photonics, directly modulated lasers (DML) and externally modulated lasers (EML). 



The MSA foresees several technical challenges at 800 gigabits.

One challenge is developing 100-gigabaud direct-detect optics needed to generate the four 200 gigabit channels using PAM4. Another is fitting the designs into a QSFP-DD or OSFP pluggable module while meeting their specified power consumption limitations. A third challenge is choosing a low-power forward error correction scheme and a PAM4 digital signal processor (DSP) that meet the MSA’s performance and latency requirements.  

“We expect first conclusions in the fourth quarter of 2020 with the publication of the first specification,” says Kuschnerov. 

The 800G Pluggable MSA is also following industry developments such as the IEEE proposal for the 8x100-gigabit SR8 over multi-mode fibre that uses VCSELs. But the MSA believes VCSELs represent a higher risk.

“Our biggest challenge is creating sufficient momentum for the 800-gigabit ecosystem, and getting key industry contributors involved in our activity,” says Kuschnerov.

Arista Networks, the switch vendor that has long promoted 800-gigabit modules, says it has no immediate plans to join the MSA. 

“But as one of the supporters of the OSFP MSA, we are aligned in the need to develop an ecosystem of technology suppliers for components and test equipment for OSFP pluggable optics at 800 gigabits,” says Martin Hull, Arista’s associate vice president, systems engineering and platforms.  

Hull points out that the OSFP pluggable module MSA was specified with 800 gigabits in mind.


Next-generation Ethernet 

The fact that there is no 800 Gigabit Ethernet standard will not hamper the work, and the MSA cannot wait for the development of such a standard.

“The IEEE is in the bandwidth assessment stage for beyond 400-gigabit rates and we haven’t seen too many contributions,” says Kuschnerov. The IEEE would then need to start a Call For Interest and define an 800GbE Study Group to evaluate the technical feasibility of 800GbE. Only then will an 800GbE Task Force Phase start. “We don’t expect the work on 800GbE in IEEE to progress in line with our target for component sampling,” says Kuschnerov. First prototype 800G MSA modules are expected in the fourth quarter of 2021.

Arista’s Hull stresses that an 800GbE standard is not needed given that 800-gigabit modules support standardised rates based on 2x400-gigabit and 8x100-gigabit

Moreover, speed increments for Ethernet are typically more than 2x. “That would suggest an expectation for 1 Terabit Ethernet (TbE) or 1.6TbE speeds,” says Hull. This was the case with the bandwidth transition from 10GbE to 40GbE (4x), and 40GbE to 100GbE (2.5x). 

“It would be unusual for Ethernet’s evolution to slow to a 2x rate and make 800 Gigabit Ethernet the next step,” says Hull. “The introduction of 112Gbps serdes allows for a doubling of input-output (I/O) on a per-physical interface but this is not the next Ethernet speed.”


Pluggable versus co-packaged optics 

There is an ongoing industry debate as to when switch vendors will be forced to transition from pluggable optics on the front panel to photonics co-packaged with the switch ASIC.

The issue is that with each doubling of switch chip speed, it becomes harder to get the data on and off the chip at a reasonable cost and power consumption. Driving the ever faster signals from the chip to the front-panel optics is also becoming challenging.

Packaging the optics with the switch chip enables the high-speed serialiser-deserialiser (serdes), the circuitry that gets data on and off the chip, to be simplified; no longer will the serdes need to drive high-speed signals across the printed circuit board (PCB) to the front panel. Adopting co-packaged optics simplifies the PCB design, constrains the switch chip’s overall power consumption given how hundreds of serdes are used, and reduces the die area reserved for the serdes. 

But transitioning to co-packaged optics represents a significant industry shift. 

The consensus at a panel discussion at the OFC show, held in March, entitled Beyond 400G for Hyperscaler Data Centres, was that the use of front-panel pluggable optics will continue for at least two more generations of switch chips: at 25.6Tbps and at 51.2Tbps. 

It is a view shared by the 800G Pluggable MSA and one of its motivating goals. 

The MSA believes that 800-gigabit pluggables are technically feasible and offer clear benefits versus co-packaging,” says Kuschnerov. “As long as the industry can support pluggables, this will be the preferred choice of the data centre operators.” 

It has always paid off to bet on the established technology as long as it is technically feasible due to the sheer amount of investment already made, says Kuschnerov. 

Major shifts in interconnects such as coherent replacing direct detect, or PSM/ CWDM pushing out VCSELs, or optics replacing copper have happened only when legacy technologies approach their limits and which can't be overcome easily, he says: “We don’t believe in such fundamental limitations for 800-gigabit pluggables.”

So when will the industry adopt co-packaged optics? 

“We believe that beyond 51.2Tbps there is a very high risk surrounding the serdes and thus co-packaging might become necessary to overcome this limitation,” says Kuschnerov.

Switch-chip-maker, Broadcom, has said that co-packaged optics will be adopted alongside pluggables, enabling the hyperscalers to lessen the risk of the new technology's introduction. Broadcom believes that co-packaged optics solutions will appear as early as the advent of 25.6-terabit switch chips.

An earlier transitional introduction is also a view shared by Hugo Saleh, vice president of marketing and business development at silicon photonics specialist at Ayar Labs, which recently unveiled its optical I/O chiplet technology is being co-packaged with Intel’s Stratix 10 FPGA

Saleh says the consensus is that the node past 51.2Tbps must use in-packaged optics. But he also expects overlap before then, especially for high-end and custom solutions.

“It [co-packaged optics] is definitely coming, and it is coming sooner than some folks expect,” says Saleh.

Several companies have contacted the MSA since its 800-gigabit announcement. The 800G MSA is also in discussion with several component and module vendors that are about to join, from Asia and elsewhere. Inphi and Lumentum have joined since the MSA was announced.

Discussions have started with system vendors and hyperscale data center operators; Baidu is one that has since signed up.  

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