Optics take center stage as digital environments grow

Oct. 14, 2022
Tim Vang, vice president of marketing and applications for Semtech’s Signal Integrity Products Group, shares his thoughts on optics within an increasingly digital world.

As 400G, 800G, and 1.6T processing requirements intensify, the requirement for massive interconnections across networks grows as well. At the same time, as these faster chips work to support higher data rates and capacity come to market, data center customers will weigh the cost, power, and performance of optical interconnects to determine the best solution for their operational needs.

The demands of this digital environment will turn to optical systems offering a targeted approach to networking and adapt to changing data consumption demands in a way that maximizes profitability and sustainability. PAM4 CDR solutions are the future of optical systems because they offer the flexibility to meet current and future data center demands—including high bandwidth, low power, and low latency—and drive our ever-evolving digital ecosystem.

Read on as Tim Vang, vice president of marketing and applications for Semtech’s Signal Integrity Products Group, shares his thoughts on optics within an increasingly digital world.

Laser Focus World: How are optical systems advancing?

Tim Vang: Digital transformation across industries and the growing popularity of cloud-based infrastructure are fueling the demand in the hyperscale data center market, which is expected to reach $500 billion by 2030. These data-heavy applications put the burden on optical systems to deliver additional bandwidth and faster networking interconnection speeds. Until recently, the primary choice for data center optical interconnects were digital signal processing (DSP)-based solutions. However, these systems consume high power and operate at high latency and cost. DSPs require parallel data paths internally to digitally process converted analog signals within data centers, but this adds power to the DSP solution and latency to the link.

Now, analog PAM4 clock and data recovery (CDR) optical systems offer increased bandwidth and reduced power, latency, and cost to meet customer demands efficiently and sustainably. PAM4 CDR optical solutions process signals at the signal bitrate using analog CDRs, which lowers the chip’s power and minimizes link latency. This analog CDR technology also can integrate the laser driver and transimpedance amplifier (TIA), which minimizes the interfacing power requirements and helps maintain signal integrity for lower operating costs.

Every time someone joins a Zoom call, streams a show on Netflix, or uses a 5G-enabled smartphone, data moves from point A to B using fiber and optical solutions. To paint a picture of what that looks like, over 300 million Zoom calls take place every day. One Zoom call requires 3 Mbit/s, meaning data centers need optical technology that can deliver bandwidth of at least 900 million Mbit/s to keep businesses, customers, and clients connected every day. But that’s just one example. Optical technology supports so many use cases, including those that are more advanced, like high-performance computing (HPC) and artificial intelligence (AI), with minimal changes to data center infrastructure. As data centers increase capacity using innovative optical technology, we’ll see advances in new and exciting use cases like virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, and smart cities.

Optical technology, like PAM4 CDR solutions, uses laser drivers on integrated circuits (ICs) to drive the lasers that convert electrical signals to optical signals to be transmitted through optical fibers. Optical ICs can integrate PAM4 CDRs, laser drivers, and TIAs all in one chip to enable a simple, elegant solution that minimizes power consumption and cost within the data center system. Additionally, optical IC solutions can also help save additional cost of optics through use of lower cost lasers.

LFW: What hurdles still remain as optical links are further integrated into computing environments?

TV: One of the major pain points in the tech industry as a whole is sustainability. As the foundation for all data movement for connected devices and use cases, data centers present an opportunity to improve tech sustainability at the core. Using optical technology like analog PAM4 CDR technology can make data centers 20% more efficient and could save the nation more than 20 billion kilowatt hours (kWh)—that translates to roughly $2 billion in cost savings. While some savings innovations, like lower power-consuming servers, storage devices, optical interconnects, and cooling systems, are making headway, energy savings in data centers can’t stop there. Energy efficiency at the optical level is key to sustainable computing environments moving forward.

LFW: Any thoughts on how to overcome the existing obstacles and how this drives the future?

TV: Analog PAM4 CDR technology is more energy-efficient than DSP technology because it removes the analog to digital conversion step, in some cases resulting in power consumption savings up to 20% per optical link. According to industry forecasts, PAM4 CDR optical solutions could save up to 1 TWh of energy annually by 2027, the equivalent of powering 100,000 homes or 385,000 metric tons of CO2 emissions. By offering faster processing speeds with lower power consumption, data center customers can ensure efficient data transfer for enterprises and consumers without sacrificing sustainability.

As the industry moves toward 400G, 800G, and 1.6T processing requirements, data centers will need massive interconnections across networks to meet the demand. As faster chips that support higher data rates and capacity come to market, data center customers will weigh the cost, power, and performance of optical interconnects to determine the best solution for their operational needs. They will turn to optical systems that offer a targeted approach to networking and adapt to changing data consumption demands in a way that maximizes profitability and sustainability. PAM4 CDR solutions are the future of optical systems because they offer the flexibility to meet current and future data center demands—including high bandwidth, low power and low latency—and drive our ever-evolving digital ecosystem.

About the Author

Peter Fretty | Market Leader/Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military

Peter Fretty began his role as the Market Leader, Laser & Military in June 2023; the group encompasses the Laser Focus World, Military & Aerospace Electronics, and Vision Systems Design brands. He also serves as Group Editorial Director, Laser & Military (effective spring 2023) and served as Editor in Chief of Laser Focus World since October 2021. Prior to that, he was Technology Editor for IndustryWeek for two years.

As a highly experienced journalist, he has regularly covered advances in manufacturing, information technology, and software. He has written thousands of feature articles, cover stories, and white papers for an assortment of trade journals, business publications, and consumer magazines.

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