Huawei's latest R&D push on silicon photonics is a reminder that vendors still want to differentiate on hardware.

Ken Wieland, contributing editor

December 9, 2014

3 Min Read
Can Silicon Photonics Add Spark to Hardware?

If hardware platforms can sometimes appear a tad dull against the growing software buzz that's surrounding the likes of SDN and NFV, then there's always silicon photonics as a potential way to make vendor boxes stand out from the crowd.

Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. 's announcement last week that it is hooking up with research boffins from Imec -- to develop silicon-based optical interconnects -- was another reminder that the technology is on vendors' R&D radar. (See Huawei, Imec Team on Silicon Photonics.)

Imec, a nanoelectronics research outfit based in Belgium, runs a program focused on "optimising bandwidth density, power consumption, thermal robustness and cost at the system level." It's this program that Huawei engineers are joining to work on new optical data link technology.

As to which applications Huawei has in mind, a company spokesperson told Light Reading by email that "silicon photonics will become ubiquitous" and that it's looking to develop products for long-haul and metro networks, as well as in the data center.

While silicon photonics holds out the promise of driving greater cost efficiencies and higher capacity performance in optical networking gear, Heavy Reading contributing analyst Simon Stanley says the question still remains as to what extent the Chinese firm (and other vendors) will end up using new optical solutions developed in-house rather than merchant optical modules from component suppliers. "The price performance from merchant silicon photonics may still turn out to be more attractive," says Stanley.

Want to know more about 100G? Check out our dedicated 100G content channel here on Light Reading.

Huawei's latest move in Belgium -- it already has an R&D site there -- is part of the company's wider strategy to establish stronger R&D ties in Europe. In September, Huawei opened its 17th R&D facility in Europe when it set up another site in southern France. (See Huawei Boasts 18 Euro Joint Innovation Centers and Euronews: Huawei Commits to $200M R&D Facility in UK.)

Nor is the Imec tie-up a complete surprise. Huawei's connections with the nanoelectronics specialist can be traced back to last year when it acquired Caliopa, a spin-off from Imec's Photonics Research Group and Ghent University. Specializing in silicon photonics-based optical transceivers for the data and telecoms markets, Caliopa is now integrated into Huawei's R&D center in Belgium. (See Huawei Ups the Metro Ante.)

The potential threat to component suppliers from vendors developing in-house silicon photonics has been keenly felt by Finisar Corp. (Nasdaq: FNSR). The firm's top brass have had to field questions from analysts on this subject since Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) -- a major Finisar customer -- announced last year its proprietary 100Gbit/s optical CPAK transceiver targeted at service providers and data center operators. The 100Gbit/s optical module was reportedly Cisco's first silicon photonics product based on technology gleaned from acquiring Lightwire in 2012 for $271 million. (See Cisco Defends Its 100G Silicon Project, Cisco Goes Inside With Silicon Photonics and Silicon Photonics Prep for 100G Arrival.)

Finisar, however, has now joined the silicon photonics fray. At ECOC 2014, the company announced what it claimed was the industry's first demonstration of a 50Gbit/s optical interface using silicon photonics, which it touted as a building block towards 100G and above in the data center.

And it's in the data center where silicon photonics seems to be gathering most momentum (as a way to connect high-performance servers). For example, at the Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) conference held in San Francisco this year, Mellanox Technologies Ltd. (Nasdaq: MLNX) demonstrated a 100Gbit/s solution for the data center based on silicon photonics, so more than doubling today's 40Gbit/s QSFP (quad small form-factor pluggable) technology.

Mellanox bought Kotura, a components vendor specialising in silicon photonics, for $82 million last year. (See Mellanox Buys Silicon Photonics for 100G.)

— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Ken Wieland

contributing editor

Ken Wieland has been a telecoms journalist and editor for more than 15 years. That includes an eight-year stint as editor of Telecommunications magazine (international edition), three years as editor of Asian Communications, and nearly two years at Informa Telecoms & Media, specialising in mobile broadband. As a freelance telecoms writer Ken has written various industry reports for The Economist Group.

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