The consortium for on-board optics (COBO) is on target to complete its specifications work by the year end

The Consortium for On-board Optics (COBO) is on target to complete its specifications work by the year end.The work will then enter a final approval stage that will take up to a further three months.On-board optics, also known as mid-board or embedded optics, have been available for years but vendors have so far had to use custom products.

The goal of COBO, first announced in March 2015 and backed by such companies as Microsoft, Cisco Systems, Finisar and Intel, is to develop a technology roadmap and common specifications for on-board optics to ensure interoperability.

Brad Booth (pictured), the chair of COBO and principal architect for Microsoft’s Azure Global Networking Services, says that bringing optics inside systems raises a different set of issues compared to pluggable optical modules used on the front panel of equipment. “If you have a requirement for 32-ports on a faceplate, you know mechanically what you can build,” says Booth.

With on-board optics, the focus is less about size considerations and more about the optical design itself and what is needed to make it work. There is also more scope to future-proof the design, something that can not be done so much with pluggable optics, says Booth.

COBO is working on a 400-gigabit optical module based on the 8-by–50 gigabit interface. The focus in recent months has been on defining the electrical connector that will be needed. The group has narrowed down the choice of candidates to two and the final selection will be based on the connector’s signal integrity performance and manufacturability. Also being addressed is how two such modules could be placed side-by-side to create a 800-gigabit (16-by–50 gigabit) design.

COBO’s 400-gigabit on-board optics will support multi-mode and single-mode fibre variants. “When we do a comparison with what the pluggable people are pushing, there are a lot of pluggables that won’t be able to handle the power envelope,” says Booth.

There is no revolutionary change that goes on with technology, it all has to be evolutionary

On-board optics differs from a pluggable module in that the optics and electronics are not confined within a mechanical enclosure and therefore power dissipation is less of an design issue. But by supporting different fibre requirements and reaches new design issues arise. For example, when building a 16-by–50 gigabit design, the footprint is doubled and COBO is looking to eliminate the gap between the two such that a module can be plugged in that is either 8- or 16-lanes wide.

COBO is also being approached about supporting other requirements such as coherent optics for long-distance transmission. A Coherent Working Group has been formed and will meet for the first time in December in Santa Barbara, California. Using on-board optics for coherent avoids the power constraint issues associated with using a caged pluggable module.

On-board optics versus co-packaging

On-board optics is seen as the next step in the evolution of optics as it moves from the faceplate onto the board, closer to the ASIC. There is only so many modules that can fit on a faceplate. The power consumption also raises as the data rate of a pluggable modules increases, as does the power associated with driving faster electrical traces across the board.

Using on-board optics shortens the trace lengths by placing the optics closer to the chip. The board input-output capacity that can be supported also increases as it is fibres not pluggable optics that reside on the front panel. Ultimately, however, designers are already exploring the combining of optics and the chip using a system-in-package design, also known as 2.5D or 3D chip packaging.

Booth says discussions have already taken place between COBO members about co-packaged optics. But he does not expect system vendors to stay with pluggable optics and migrate directly to co-packaging thereby ignoring the on-board optics stage.

“There is no revolutionary change that goes on with technology, it all has to be evolutionary,” says Booth, who sees on-board optics as the next needed transition after pluggables. “You have to have some pathway to learn and discover, and figure out the pain points,” he says. “We are going to learn a lot when we start the deployment of COBO-based modules.

Booth also sees on-board optics as the next step in terms of flexibility.

When pluggable modules were first introduced they were promoted as allowing switch vendors to support different fibre and copper interfaces on their platforms. The requirements of the cloud providers has changed that broad thinking, he says: “We don’t need that same level of flexibility but there is still a need for suporting different styles of optical interfaces on a switch.”

There are not a lot of other modules that can do 600 gigabit but guess what? COBO can

For example, one data centre operator may favour a parallel fibre solution based on the 100-gigabit PSM4 module while another may want a 100-gigabit wavelength-division multiplexing (WDM) solution and use the CWDM4 module. “This [parallel lane versus WDM] is something embedded optics can cater for,” says Booth.

Moving to a co-packaged design offers no such flexibility. What can a data centre manager do when deciding to change from parallel single-mode optics to wavelength-division multiplexing when the optics is already co-packaged with the chip? “Also how do I deal with an optics failure? Do I have to replace the whole switch silicon?” says Booth. We may be getting to the point where we can embed optics with silicon but what is needed is a lot more work, a lot more consideration and a lot more time, says Booth.