Consortium for On-Board Optics targets specs for higher data center faceplate density

Having decided that even pluggable modules are too big, a consortium has formed to create specifications for on-board optics to increase the faceplate density of data center switches. The aptly named Consortium for On-Board Optics (COBO) features data center heavyweights such as Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT) and Dell, along with a broad range of IC, interconnect, optical transport, and data center switch providers.

Having decided that even pluggable modules are too big, a consortium has formed to create specifications for onboard optics to increase the faceplate density of data center switches and adapters. The aptly named Consortium for On-Board Optics (COBO) features data center heavyweight Microsoft Corp. (NASDAQ: MSFT), along with a broad range of IC, interconnect, optical transport, and data center switch providers.

In a keynote speech at the Optical Society of America's Executive Forum March 23, Jeff Cox, senior director, network architecture at Microsoft, said that his company and others with "mega-scale" data centers foresee a time in the near future when the volume of optical interconnects in their networks will require greater faceplate density than even QSFP28 optical modules will be able to support. At the same time, he said that Microsoft doesn't have a strong need for the kind of flexibility pluggable modules are designed to provide. Therefore, the company and its consortium partners will aim to speed the development of economical onboard optics that will move the optical transceiver function closer to the chip, meaning that fiber-optic connectors will satisfy the need for interfaces on the faceplates of data center network switches and adapters. The use of onboard optics also will simplify cooling techniques and, hopefully, reduce power requirements. Reliability also could improve, as technicians won't be handling them.

Joining Microsoft as founding members of COBO are Arista Networks (NYSE: ANET), Broadcom Corp. (NASDAQ:BRCM), Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO), Coriant, Dell, Finisar Corp. (NASDAQ: FNSR), Inphi Corp. (NYSE: IPHI), Intel Corp. (NASDAQ: INTC), JDSU (NASDAQ: JDSU), Juniper Networks (NYSE: JNPR), Luxtera Inc., Mellanox Technologies (NASDAQ: MLNX), Oclaro (NASDAQ: OCLR), RANOVUS, Source Photonics, and TE Connectivity (NYSE: TEL).

The group will collaborate on specifications for electrical interfaces, management interfaces, thermal requirements, and pinouts for onboard optical devices that will be interchangeable and interoperable. Cox said the group will reference existing standards and specifications where possible.

Brad Booth, principal Architect, Microsoft Azure Global Networking Services, will chair the group. Asked via email whether the consortium was discussing when it might achieve results, he responded, "We have discussed it at a high level. Working groups are chartered for one year, so we're trying to achieve some goals within that timeframe."

"LightCounting has tracked the decade-long use of proprietary on-board/embedded optical modules inside high-performance systems," said Dale Murray, Principal Analyst for LightCounting Market Research. "Standardizing these on-board modules via an industry consortium helps accelerate their use in the much larger datacenter market."

"Dell is pleased to be a founding member of this consortium to help define open standards for on-board optics. This will set the stage for interchangeable, multi-party solutions that combine the flexibility offered by pluggable modules with improved face-plate density to meet the growing demands of next-generation data centers," said Subi Krishnamurthy, CTO, Dell Networking.

COBO is courting additional members. Information is available at http://cobo.azurewebsites.net/.

For more information on optical transceivers and suppliers, visit the Lightwave Buyer's Guide.



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