Luxtera Goes Commercial
Luxtera introduced Blazar with a press release this week and will probably talk more about it next week at Hot Interconnects -- not a consenting-adults-only social networking site but an annual geekfest for electrical engineers in the communications space.
Alongside Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC) and some universities like UCLA and the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) , Luxtera has spent the past few years talking about the possibility of building optical components by using complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) processes -- i.e., employing the same silicon and the same manufacturing process as used for most other chips. (See Luxtera Chases Silicon Photonics, Luxtera Launches Silicon Optics, and Intel Pushes Silicon Modulator .)
The result, still a long-term dream, would be optics that could be produced more cheaply than today and in greater quantities. This would allow the kind of massive integration that Infinera Corp. (Nasdaq: INFN) has pulled off -- only using common silicon, rather than more expensive indium phosphide (InP).
That's all great, but Luxtera, which was founded in 2001 and has had $46 million in funding, has to pay the bills by finding a more immediate market. (See Luxtera Launches Silicon Optics.) Blazar, and other cables like it, are going to be the company's revenue source for the immediate future. "Over time, we're going to propagate this technology across a mix of cables and modules," says Marek Tlakla, Luxtera's vice president of marketing.
Eventually, the company might get into mixing its CMOS optics with other chips, opening the door to products like a one-chip network interface card that combines optics with Ethernet piece-parts. But that's "a couple of years out," Tlalka says.
Blazar fits in a relatively new category called "optical active cable." It's meant to replace copper cabling without incurring the kind of cost that's kept fiber out of some applications. Optical active cable, and fiber in general, is touted as being lighter and more bendable than copper -- both factors being important in a crowded data center.
Blazar targets rack-to-rack connections of 300 meters or less. Luxtera officials say they could probably go to 2 km, but there isn't much call for that kind of distance.
Other companies offering optical active cable include Emcore Corp. (Nasdaq: EMKR) and Zarlink Semiconductor Inc. (NYSE/Toronto: ZL). But their top speed is 20 Gbit/s. Luxtera is hoping to leapfrog them by starting at 40-Gbit/s speeds -- four fibers of 10 Gbit/s apiece -- and that's where the silicon optics comes in.
Blazar uses a single (non-CMOS) laser that supplies all four fibers. The laser's light gets sent through four silicon waveguides that modulate it, then send the light into the four fibers that are connected right onto the optical chip.
The setup allows Luxtera to use a cheap, continuous-wavelength laser, rather than four lasers and four modulators, keeping the assembly compact.
Everything interesting about Blazar, then, lies in that Luxtera chip with its modulators. The chip sits inside a non-removable connector on either end of the cable. In between is plain old singlemode fiber.
"The fiber media itself is actually very cheap, about $1.20 a meter, whereas this copper cable sells for $15," Tlalka says.
With Blazar, Luxtera will first target the InfiniBand market, later moving to 40-Gbit/s Ethernet as that standard evolves. (See 100-GigE, 40-GigE Live in Peace.)
Luxtera plans to start sampling Blazar in the fourth quarter to a few customers. Full production won't come until mid-2008.
— Craig Matsumoto, West Coast Editor, Light Reading