Preparing for a post-pluggable optical module world

The OIF is working on several electrical and optical specifications as the industry looks beyond pluggable optical transceivers.

One initiative is to specify the external laser source used for co-packaged optics, dubbed the External Laser Small Form Factor Pluggable (ELSFP) project.

Industry interest in co-packaged optics, combining an ASIC and optical chiplets in one package, is growing as it becomes increasingly challenging and costly to route high-speed electrical signals between a high-capacity Ethernet switch chip and the pluggable optics on the platform’s faceplate.

The OIF is also developing 112-gigabit electrical interfaces to address not just co-packaged optics but also near package optics and the interface needs of servers and graphics processor units (GPUs).

Near package optics also surrounds the ASIC with optical chiplets. But unlike co-packaged optics, the ASIC and chiplets are placed on a high-performance substrate located on the host board.


Data centre operators have vast experience using pluggables and controlling their operating environment so that they don’t overheat. The thermal management of optics co-packaged with an ASIC that can dissipate hundreds of watts is far trickier.

Of all the components, the one that hates heat the most is the laser,” says Nathan Tracy, TE Connectivity and the OIF’s vice president of marketing.

Players such as Intel and Juniper have integrated laser technology, allowing them to place the full transceiver on a chip. However, the industry trend is to use an external light source so that the laser is decoupled from the remaining optical transceiver circuitry.

We bring fibre into and out of the co-packaged optical transceiver so why not add a couple more fibres and bring the laser source into the transceiver as well?” says Tracy.

Two approaches are possible. One is to box the lasers and place them within the platform in a thermally-controlled environment. Alternatively, the lasers can be boxed and placed on the equipment’s faceplate, as pluggable optics.

We know how to do that,” says Tracy. “But it is not a transceiver, it is a module full of lasers.

Such a pluggable laser approach also addresses a concern of the data centre operators: how to service the optics of a co-packaged design.

The OIF’s ELSFP project is working to specify such a laser pluggable module: its mechanical form factor, electrical interface, how light will exit the module, and its thermal management.

The goal is to develop a laser pluggable that powers up when inserted and has a blind-mate optical interface, ensuring light reaches the co-packaged optics transceivers on the host board with minimal optical loss.

Optical interfaces are fussy things,” says Tracy. Such interfaces must be well-aligned, clean, and hold tight tolerances, says Tracy: “That is all captured under the term blind-mate.”

Optical fibre will deliver light from the laser module to the co-packaged optics but multi-core fibre may be considered in future.

One issue the OIF is discussing is the acceptable laser output power. The higher the output power, the more the source can be split to feed more co-packaged optics transceivers. But higher-power lasers have eye-safety issues.

Another topic being addressed is the fibre density the form factor should enable. The OIF wants a roadmap to ensure that future co-packaged optics’ needs are also met.

The industry can then take that specification and go compete in the market, adding their differentiation on top of the standardisation,” says Tracy.

The OIF’s ELSFP members have submitted technical contributions and a draft specification exists. “Now we are in the iterative process with members building on that draft,” says Tracy.

Co-packaged optics and near package optics

As the capacity of switch chips continues to double, more interfaces are needed to get data in and out and the harder it is becoming to route the channels between the chip and the optical modules.

The chip package size is also increasing with the growing aggregate bandwidth and channels, says Tracy. These channels come out via the package’s solder balls that connect to the host board.

You don’t want to make that ASIC package any bigger than it needs to be; packages have bad parasitics,” says Tracy

For a fully co-packaged design, a switch ASIC is surrounded by 16 optical engines. For next-generation 51.2-terabit switch ASICs, 3.2 terabits-per-second (Tbps) optical engines will be required. Add the optical engines and the switch package becomes even bigger.

You are starting to get to the point where you are making the package bigger in ways that are challenging the industry,” says Tracy.

Near package optics offers an alternative approach to avoid cramming the optics with the ASIC. Here, the ASIC and the chiplets are mounted on a high-performance substrate that sits on the host card.

Now the optical engines are a little bit further away from the switching silicon than in the co-packaged optics’ case,” says Tracy.

CEI-112G-Extra Short Reach Plus (XSR+) electrical interface

According to optical I/O specialist, Ayar Labs, near package optics and co-packaged optics have similar optical performance given the optical engines are the same. Where they differ is the electrical interface requirements.

With co-packaged optics, the channel length between the ASIC and the optical engine is up to 50mm and the channel loss is 10dB. With near package optics, the channel length is up to 150mm and a 13dB channel loss.

The OIF’s 112Gbps XSR+ electrical interface is to meet the longer reach needs of near package optics.

It enables a little bit more margin or electrical channel reach while being focused on power reduction,” says Tracy. “Co-packaged optics is all about power reduction; that is its value-add.”


A third ongoing OIF project – the CEI-112-Linear project – also concerns a 112Gbps chip-to-optical engine interface.

The project’s goal is to specify a linear channel so that the chip’s electrical transmitter (serdes) can send data over the link – made up of an optical transmitter and an optical receiver as well as the electrical receiver at the far end – yet requires equalisation for the transmitter and end receiver only.

A linear link means we understand the transition of the signal from electrical to optical to electrical,” says Tracy. “If we are operating over a linear range then equalisation is straightforward.” That means simpler processing for the signal’s recovery and an overall lower power consumption.

By standardising such a linear interface, multiple chip vendors will be able to drive the optics of multiple I/O chiplet companies.

Everything is about power savings, and the way to get there is by optimising the link,” says Tracy.

224-gigabit electrical interfaces

The OIF’s next-generation 224Gbps electrical interface work continues to progress. Member input to date has tackled the challenges, opportunities and the technologies needed to double electrical interface speeds.

We are surveying the playing field to understand where the really hard parts are,” says Tracy.

A White Paper is expected in the coming year that will capture how the industry views the issues and the possible solutions.

If you have industry consensus then it is easier to start a project addressing the specific implementation to meet the problem,” says Tracy.