Optical Networking Featured Article

Consortium Established for Interoperable On-Board Optics

March 31, 2015

There is little doubt that the future of data centers large and small is going to be increasingly about the introduction of more and more optical connections. It has to be since as much as 70 percent of all data traffic is inside the data center.  Plus, ultimately there are issues about data center connectivity with the WAN that are also emerging.

As the need for speed inside the data center increases—and we move to commodity hardware—so too has the need for interoperability.  In fact, as we get to networking technologies such as 400 Gbps Ethernet the networking industry can no long be constrained by such things as switch faceplate bandwidth density and airflow constraints. It turns out that even pluggable modules are too big to solve the problems.

With this in mind, a new industry group has been formed, the Consortium for On-Board Optics (COBO).  Unveiled by Jeff Cox, senior director, network architecture at Microsoft during a keynote address at the recently concluded Optical Society of America’s Executive Forum, COBO’s mission is to get in front of the problem hyperscale data centers will encounter in the not too distant future which pluggables cannot handle.

Below is a logo we are sure to see a lot more of in the not too distant future.

The aim is to develop as the consortium name states, economic and interoperable on-board optics that will enable optical transceiver functions to be closer to the chip. This will entail defining industry standards that permit relocating the optical module from the faceplate to inside the networking equipment. It translates into those new faceplates on data center network switch adapters which in turn can simplify cooling requirements and save power costs. 

This is collaboration on an impressive scale. The intent is to work on specifications and technology roadmaps for on-board optical modules that can be mounted or socketed on a network switch or adapter motherboard. Areas cited include:

  • Electrical interfaces
  • Management interfaces
  • Thermal requirements
  • Pinouts for on-board optical devices that will be interchangeable and interoperable. 

And, not to throw the baby out with the bath water, the goal is to work with existing specifications when possible.

As noted you have to like who is literally on-board early as consortium members.  The founding members include:  Arista Networks, Broadcom Corp., Cisco, Coriant, Dell, Finisar Corp., Inphi Corp., Intel Corp., JDSU, Juniper Networks, Luxtera Inc., Mellanox Technologies, Microsoft Corp., Oclaro , RANOVUS, Source Photonics and TE Connectivity.   

“The founding companies of the Consortium for On-Board Optics are taking a major step forward in improving the efficiency of optical interconnects in datacenter networks,” said Brad Booth, COBO Chair and Principal Architect, Microsoft Azure Global Networking Services. “With ever-increasing data rates, the ability to move the optical modules closer to the network silicon provides a real economic and environmental benefit.”  

To say that the COBO founders are excited about the consortium would be an understatement. 

“As the interconnect rates in the datacenter increase, intelligent integration of optics becomes far more critical for efficient, cost effective data centers. Faceplate integration via optical modules was designed when copper was the dominant interconnect type, and burdens an optical transceiver with undue power consumption and cost. Board mounted optics yield considerable cost and power savings, and are a necessary component for systems where optics are the majority interconnect type,” said Brian Welch, Director of Product Marketing at Luxtera. “Luxtera is pleased to be a member of the Consortium for On-Board Optics (COBO), and recognizes it as an important step forward for the mass proliferation of optics in the datacenter.”

The expectation is that the membership is going to grow rather rapidly. After all, this is an area where cooperation and not competition would be a huge help for everyone.  Indeed, solving the challenges in this realm leaves more than ample room for all players who supply data center solutions and components for those solutions to still compete robustly.  The broad range of interests already represented by the founding companies demonstrates this.

Companies interested in becoming a member of COBO should visit http://cobo.azurewebsites.net/


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