Silicon Photonics Inflection Point – It’s Not ‘If,’ It’s ‘When’

Lately, there’s been a lot of buzz about silicon photonics in the data center industry. What’s it all about? The ever-expanding digital universe is being driven by cloud computing, mobile data, video streaming, and Internet-of-Things (IoT). Today, it’s estimated that by end of 2016, more than 6 zettabytes (i.e., the equivalent to about 250 billion DVDs) of data will be pushed through data centers and this number is expected to double by 2020. Moreover, networking bandwidth is doubling every two to three years, meaning that the number of links and each link data capacity is doubling – 10G is becoming 25G, and 40G ports are evolving to 100G ports. Moving all of this data within data centers (between the servers, switches, and storage) will require the widespread adoption of optical communications in order to scale with the growth in storage and computing demands. Using copper wires and fiber-optic technology to transmit the digital information will not keep pace with Moore’s Law.

For a long time the photonics industry has been working on hybrid silicon technologies such as indium phosphide and silicon germanium. Fast forward to today: traditional CMOS fabs have been able to successfully manufacture Photonics IC and optical components without special processing steps and additional associated costs. Laser technology has also evolved different fiber technologies (SMF and MMF), supporting multiple wavelengths operating at 1550 and 1310 modes.

 Silicon Photonics Inflection Point - It’s Not ‘If,’ It’s ‘When’

For data centers, this helped create momentum for longer-reach, fiber-based connections to overcome copper’s limitation of 100 meters. The optical connections address the up to 2km reach within data centers and up to 80km outside data centers. Finally, technology analysts are projecting huge growth for SiPh-based modules, lasers, and fiber deployments, with two big markets driving the momentum: Datacom and Telecom, which are creating new markets in Data Center Interconnect (DCI), Metro Area, Content Delivery Network (CDN), and Basestation Front haul markets. Thanks to the hyper-growth in cloud data center traffic and the transition to 400G in the optical transport network, cloud data center giants are claiming that they will consume three-fourths of the optics in the entire world by next year. That means SiPh-based 100G ports will be ramping to multi-millions per year starting in 2017.

Intel 's View on Silicon Photonics deployments: Intel Data Center Day-Aug 2015

Additionally, growth in the number of servers deployed has skyrocketed to more than 12M per year, and connectivity from rack-to-rack, rack-to- switches, and switch-to-switch are morphing to fiber-based connectivity in order to meet the networking bandwidth for power hungry data centers with lower total cost of ownership (TCO).

This makes me eagerly optimistic about on-board optics, PSM4, QSFP56, and CFP4 type modules and form factors.kets driving the momentum; Datacom and Telecom, which are creating new markets in Data Center Interconnect (DCI), Metro Area, Content Delivery Network (CDN), and Basestation Front haul markets. Advancements in SiPh technology are essential for data center speed. A recent Cisco VNI update estimates that traffic between DCI to DCI is equal to the 1/7th of the traffic inside data center. What that mean is DCI to DCI and Metro links will be screaming for the bandwidth and dense connectivity of 100G links in the near future. For all the obvious reasons, SiPh chips are the right choice to lower the cost and power consumption, while improving bandwidth and capacity. Remarkably, Metro and CDN networks will become key enablers for advancing silicon photonics technology.

Global Data Center Traffic by Destination, 2019

Source: Cisco Global Cloud Index: 2014–2019

Content providers, network operators, and content delivery networks are seeing tremendous growth fueled by video streaming and overall broadband access and backhaul networks. This insatiable bandwidth need is driving video streaming networks to move to multi-100G based SiPh solutions. Especially in the long-haul, transport networks will see the need for multi-100G line rates, 400G, and up to 1.2Tera bits transponders and muxponders line cards. A few optical companies have started demonstrating 200G based solutions in this area, creating a great opportunity for optical component vendors, module manufacturers, and silicon photonic chip manufacturers. The growth ladder for silicon photonics is coming from the new 5th generation, 5G technology for cellular systems. The real question is: why is 5G driving silicon photonics’ inflection point? Wireless infrastructure pundits are claiming 5G is a panacea technology and it will support 10G/s bandwidth, 1000x capacity at lowest round trip latency ~1ms, in comparison with LTE technology. Top infrastructure vendors like Ericsson, Nokia and Huawei are vigorously looking for new architectures to fulfill the 5G dream with bandwidth requirements at the lowest TCO. Some key trends are large-scale array antenna and mm-wave communication with many remote radio heads (RRH) deployed in the field (small cells again!). In the front haul, all these remote radio heads are connected to a centralized radio access network (CRAN), referred to as the super basestation (should I say virtualized?). Since these basestations are isolated from each other, with kilometers of distance, they require a high speed, and reliable connectivity networking. This is where the need for OTN based Silicon Photonics connectivity comes in, when 5G basestations deployment ramps, infrastructure growth will explodes and China alone will have millions of ports and volumes with Silicon Photonics. But in reality, 5G deployments are bit far away, meaning they will probably not begin until 2018 and beyond (and more likely 2020+). But clearly 5G front haul architectures will propel the demand for various silicon photonics modules and chip sets. The progressive growth of the hyper-connected world is pushing photonics to an inflection point. Now, it’s not if but when? Starting with cloud data centers, DCI-to-DCI, Metro and long-haul transport networks, and 5G basestations will enable the momentum and drive the demand for silicon photonics based solutions and deployments ports. As we approach 2017, we should see an inflection point for data center OEMs and telecom operators. Ultimately, all that demand for high speed, high bandwidth data in telecommunications and data centers will propel ecosystem growth and silicon photonics technologies.. To learn more about hypercloud data center solutions with breakthrough semiconductor technologies, download this recent presentation or contact your GLOBALFOUNDRIES sales representative.