Intel, Arista Head Up Latest 100G Optics Effort

The vendors' 100G CLR4 Alliance to develop a spec for products that will support distances up to 2 kilometers for data centers.

Intel and Arista are spearheading the latest effort to fuel widespread adoption of 100 gigabit-per-second optical networking to data centers.

At the Interop Las Vegas event April 1, the two vendors announced a new consortium of two-dozen tech companies—including Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Brocade, Oracle and eBay—that is developing a proposed standard for 100G bps links for data center switches that can support distances up to 2 kilometers and will address the need for faster and more cost-efficient ways to manage and move the increasingly massive amounts of data now inundating data centers.

"There is an explosion of [network] traffic, and most of the traffic is confined in the data center," Andy Bechtolsheim, co-founder, chairman and chief development officer at Arista, said during an online press conference ahead of the announcement.

The data explosion comes from such trends as the rapid growth in the number of mobile devices connecting to the network, cloud computing, big data and social networking. The need for faster and more economical networking also comes along with the rise of large online businesses—such as eBay, Google and Facebook—which continue to build massive hyperscale data centers that are designed to rapidly process, move and analyze the data.

"Data centers are becoming massive in scale, requiring longer and longer reaches for connectivity," Mario Paniccia, an Intel Fellow and general manager of Intel's photonics research at Intel Labs, said in a post on the chip maker's blog. "This leaves an enormous opportunity to bring high-speed, low-power, optical links that can span up to 2 kilometers in modern data centers operating at data rates up to 100G bps. That's more than 20 football fields."

The goal of the 100G CLR4 Alliance is to create a specification for a 100G coarse wavelength division multiplexing (CWDM) transceiver in a small QSFP form factor that will measure 8.5mm by 18mm by 72mm. It will consume less than 3.5 watts of power, use two single-mode optical fibers (one for sending, one for receiving) and enable dense product designs of up to 36 100G ports in a 1RU (1.75-inch) design, according to the consortium.

The group is aiming for a proposed spec this month, with a final spec coming in May.

There are a number of problems the group is trying to address. Current 10G and 40G networking products can handle the rapid growth in traffic that's hitting the data center, and what 100G solutions out there now are focused on the telecommunications companies and are too costly for most data centers, Bechtolsheim said.

The 100G CLR4 Alliance is looking to find a middle ground, offering a 100G optical solution that is within reach of data centers. The spec will give vendors an open standard on which to build their products.

"Yes, there are telecom-centric optical transceivers today operating at 100G bps, but their power, size and costs are non-starters for the new data center," Paniccia wrote. "Thus, there is a huge gap that needs to be filled for reaches that span from, say, 100m to 2km. And that's the problem we are trying to address here."

A group within the IEEE organization tried to do the same thing, but failed last year, Bechtolsheim said. Now there is an industry-wide push to address the issue, and the consortium created by Intel and Arista is not the only one at work. The CWDM4 MSA Group—created by such vendors as Avago Technologies, Finisar Corp., JDSU and Oclaro—was announced March 31, and, earlier in March, Intel, Mellanox Technologies and Vello Systems announced other optical networking efforts.

When asked about the other standards efforts, Bechtolsheim said he and others in his group have reached out to the others and that, as an open effort, the 100G CLR4 Alliance is open to other vendors that want to participate.

What's important is to get something to the industry as fast as possible. It's been nine months since the IEEE effort failed, and data centers are finding themselves under increasing pressure from the increasing traffic.

"The key thing is that we cannot wait another nine months for a specification to come to fruition," Bechtolsheim said. "We need those optics now. We really can't wait. … We are simply out of time to fuss around."