LightCounting: Active optical cable sales continue to grow

The sale of active optical cables continues to grow for InfiniBand HPC applications and spreads to the Ethernet market, while applications in the consumer markets stall, according to LightCounting’s updated market report, “2011: Positioning for the Next Wave of Growth.”

The sale of active optical cables continues to grow for InfiniBand HPC applications and spreads to the Ethernet market, while applications in the consumer markets stall, according to LightCounting’s updated market report, “2011: Positioning for the Next Wave of Growth.”

In 2010, the active optical cable (AOC) market reached roughly $40 million in sales and 150,000 units. The market is expected to grow to just under $100 million and 450,000 units by 2015, according to LightCounting’s forecast.

The main market continues to be in high-performance computers (HPCs) or supercomputer with the InfiniBand protocol; however, 2010 saw the beginning of AOC adoption in data centers using the Ethernet protocol to connect switch layers together and also in telecom applications, interconnecting long-haul DWDM and routers in central offices.

“The adoption in data centers is good news for AOC suppliers as it moves AOCs out of a reputation as a “niche market” and into the main stream of interconnect alternatives,” comments Brad Smith, senior vice president and industry analyst for data center interconnects. “Ethernet data centers will eventually be a huge opportunity for AOC suppliers as they bring many product benefits. However, adoption will be slow as Ethernet AOCs face complications related to business issues, data center manager’s copper mindset, and installation issues with structured cabling.”

AOCs have not been employed for Fibre Channel and SAS protocols yet, and the hype around AOCs using Intel’s Light Peak in the consumer market has dissipated, continues a spokesperson. In fact, Light Peak technology made its debut as a copper interconnect for Apple PCs called ThunderBolt. LightCounting’s position is: There are simply no consumer electronics devices that require 10Gbps today and optical systems cannot compete on price in this market with 5Gbps USB 3.0 copper cables.

AOC Sales
The 4x10G QSFP form factor dominates the business while the 12x10G CXP form factor encountered slow uptake. HPC systems are very expensive, costing upwards of $100M and there are only a few HPC bids per year resulting in incredibly fierce price competition with prices in some bids falling below manufacturing costs. The Chinese Tianhe-1A HPC gained the top position in the Top 500 HPC list and used several tens of thousands of AOCs to interconnect the computing clusters together. This system required 80Gbps links and two 4x10G (40Gbps) AOCs were bonded together to meet the bandwidth requirement, demonstrating that bandwidth of a single 40G AOC is not enough going forward.

Suppliers in Rapid Change
2010 saw tremendous supplier activity with three vendors being acquired by major cabling companies. Distribution agreements with other competitors were upset, forcing some resellers to find new AOC suppliers after just launching marketing programs. Patent issues also surfaced forcing some vendors to redesign products. Acquisitions provided a path for new, international, well financed companies to enter not only the AOC business but also the transceiver business as well. Suddenly, three major international companies have joined the already crowded transceiver business and their arrival demonstrates that optical technologies are clearly important in the near future as data rates increase.

AOC Products
2010 saw the build out from four or five product configurations to over twenty. Today, suppliers are offering just about every MSA connector combination, split out formats and at multiple data rates 1, 4, and 12-channel cables. If a user has an interconnect scheme, there is an AOC for it. The InfiniBand FDR 14Gbps signaling is readying for 2012 deployment with 25Gpbs or EDR on the PowerPoint roadmap.

Watch This Space
AOCs for PCI Express systems are used to connect SSD storage clusters to servers. Given a few vendor and product events, this could be a hot new area as datacenters adopt FLASH SSD storage arrays. Also to watch are optical USB 3.0 and HDMI cables that were spotted at the recent Optical Fiber Conference OFC2011 held in March. While these segments are still embryonic, they hold a high volume potential for the AOC business. Some adoption of HDMI AOCs was reported for use in digital signage although this area faces intense competition from competing technologies. Optically enabled FPGAs and silicon photonics are also in the mix to watch.

Detailed forecasts of the AOC market by segment are provided in the latest AOC report , which also includes analysis of new technologies, market drivers, and limits to growth, the key vendors and products in the supply chain, competitive landscape, and the opportunities for suppliers in semiconductors, optical components, transceivers, servers, and switching systems.

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