Optical/IP Networks

Startup Automates Module Manufacture

Today, startup Cirrex Corp. joined the fray of components vendors trying to produce small-footprint, highly-integrated optical modules. It unveiled its first product -- an add-drop multiplexer targeting metro networks (see Cirrex Announces OAMs).

The nature of its first product indicates Cirrex is not following the well worn path to optical integration set by manufacturers of silica-based AWGs (arrayed waveguide gratings). According to Mike Wach, Cirrex's founder, president, and CEO, the startup has developed a platform that allows it to reach higher levels of integration right at the start.

It calls the technology platform "OCHIP," for Optical Communications Hybrid Integration Platform. Hybrid simply means that the optical chip is built up using several materials. In fact, there are quite a lot of materials: a ceramic substrate, electronic integrated circuits, silicon "optical benches" to hold the active optical components in place, and silica waveguides that guide light from one component to another. Cirrex puts it all together using automated assembly techniques borrowed from the microelectronics industry. It's very similar to making multichip modules, says Wach.

It's worth pointing out that at least one other startup, LightLogic Inc. appears to be pursuing a rather similar mix of materials. However, LightLogic is using lenses to couple light between components, rather than silica waveguides, so it can't claim to be integrating passive components.

Wach acknowledges that competition is going to hot up considerably, going forward. Right now, however, he sees the components divisions of the big players, like Nortel Networks Corp. (NYSE/Toronto: NT), as the main competition.

Anyhow, let's get down to business. OCHIP 1000 is a family of products that delivers a two-way communications channel to a single subscriber. It’s designed to replace DWDM hubs that "drop" every wavelength or channel regardless of their ultimate destination. Instead, the OCHIP 1000 only drops and adds connections to and from local subscribers. The remainder of the wavelengths pass through the module without being converted back into electricity.

The "drop" wavelength is separated using filtering provided inside the module, and the "add" channel is introduced using an on-board laser stabilized at the appropriate wavelength.

"The current approach is analogous to a rail system in which all the passengers must disembark and reboard at each station even though only a few are actually bound for that station," says Wach. "The Cirrex OCHIP 1000 allows carriers to drop only the traffic bound for a particular subscriber."

That's the plan, although Cirrex must learn to walk before it can run. So far, the startup has only released the first member of the product family, the OCHIP 1012, which operates at 2.5 Gbit/s and has electronic interfaces. Future versions of the product will have optical interfaces, says Wach.

Cirrex is backed by Lucent Venture Partners Inc., H.I.G. Capital, Atlanta-based Imlay Investments, and Transamerica Technology Finance. Total funding to date is $9.2 million.

— Pauline Rigby, senior editor, Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com

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