The Technologies of Next-Generation Optical Transceivers — PAM4 and 64QAM

PAM4 and 64QAM Technologies

The shift to cloud services and virtualized networks has put the data center in the middle of our world and meant that connectivity within data centers and between data centers has a huge impact on the delivery of business and personal services. Hyperscale data centers are being installed across the world and these all need connecting. To meet this demand, optical transceiver suppliers are delivering new solutions based on PAM4 and 64QAM, providing coherent modulation that will drive down the cost of connectivity and increase the bandwidth of each connection.

Connections to many servers are already 25G and links between switches in large data centers are already 100G. The introduction of SFP28 and QSFP28 transceivers integrating new technologies and built using efficient manufacturing techniques has driven down the cost of these connections and allowed massive growth in the market. The next stage is the introduction of 100G single lambda solutions and cost-effective 400G transceivers for links between switches. The PHY devices needed for this next step are already becoming available, 12.8T switch devices are in production, and the first 400G QSFP-DD and OSFP optical transceivers are sampling.

QSFP-DD

The rise of the hyperscale data center operator has dramatically changed the market. The switch to 25G and 100G from 10G and 40G has happened very quickly. The sheer scale and numbers of data centers being installed or upgraded means that the new technologies can be shipped in volume as soon as the price is right, the components have been qualified, and the production lines are operational. We are now seeing the first 400G PHY devices and optical transceivers for data centers becoming available and companies are vying for market position as we wait for the leading hyperscale operators to commit to large deployments.

Many of those companies that have benefited from 25G and 100G are putting their investments into single lambda PAM4 100G and 400G solutions for the data center. This has required new PAM4 PHY devices designed to meet the power constraints of 400G OSFP and QSFP-DD transceivers. A few companies have also invested in 50G and 200G PAM4 PHYs, enabling a cost-effective upgrade from 25G and 100G. 50G SFP56 and 200G QSFP56 transceivers are expected to be interim solutions, but it is unclear how widespread their use will be or for how long. 40G was an interim solution that lasted for many years.

Coherent technology, originally developed for 100G long-haul networks, is now widely used for long-haul connections, including subsea, metro networks, and Data Center Interconnect (DCI) between data centers. The market for DCI has grown rapidly, with many systems vendors offering solutions with 80km to 500km reach. For long-haul and metro applications, several leading equipment manufacturers continue to use in-house coherent Digital Signal Processor (DSP) designs. Coherent DSP solution is now available to optical transceiver vendors such as Gigalight that is going to ship 400G transceivers based on this design. The latest DSP ASICs are enabling 600G (64Gbaud 64QAM) solutions and CFP2-DCO transceivers. The next step is the introduction of the 7nm DSPs that will enable the cost-effective 400G ZR transceivers planned for 400G links up to 100km starting in 2020.

This continues to be a market in flux. Lumentum has completed the acquisition of Oclaro, Cisco has completed the acquisition of Luxtera, and several Chinese optical transceiver vendors have joined the charge to 400G in the data center. The PAM4 PHY devices required for 100G single lambda and 400G in the data center are proving to be very challenging to deliver. PAM4 PHY solutions in 28nm and 14/16nm technology have been sampling for more than six months and these are now being joined by 7nm solutions.

Related articles: PAM4 — The High-Speed Signal Interconnection Technology of Next-Generation Data Center

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