A demonstration this week by networking vendor Huawei Technologies and chip maker Xilinx signaled the optical industry's eagerness for 400-Gigabit Ethernet, a standard that is still at least two years away.
At the Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) conference in San Francisco, Huawei and Xilinx showed off a router line card that they say could handle 400Gbps Ethernet. The part is only a prototype and Huawei doesn't plan to sell a pre-standard product, but the demonstration shows the two vendors are already gearing up for the next version of Ethernet, said Chuck Adams, distinguished standards strategist at Huawei's U.S. R&D center.
Carrier connections that don't use Ethernet are already hitting 400Gbps. Vendors say they already have some types of 400Gbps technology on sale or in development and will be ready to ship 400-Gigabit Ethernet gear when the standard is complete. Some of the development going on with various 400Gbps parts is probably meant to influence the eventual Ethernet standard, said Dell'Oro Group analyst Alam Tamboli.
Ethernet is the mainstay of enterprise networking. Most carriers have traditionally used other technologies, but Ethernet now plays various roles in their networks as well.
With servers, PCs and mobile devices pumping more data across networks, both carriers and data-center owners are steadily demanding faster links. As with every new ramp in speed, the move from 100Gbps to 400Gbps is beginning on carrier backbones. But these days, the need for speed in massive data centers follows closely behind. That makes at least two markets that networking vendors are eager to serve.
Huawei and Xilinx put a stake in the ground on 400GbE at a Wednesday OFC session where they announced a long-term partnership and road map. Their first prototype is based on a pair of Xilinx FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) that are already in volume production, using a 28-nanometer manufacturing process, for use in other systems. In tests, the prototype line card has been able to process 400Gbps of traffic with low power consumption and no dropped packets, according to Gilles Garcia, director of wired marketing at Xilinx. A prototype coming next year will use just one chip, manufactured with a 20nm process, so it will use less space and power, he said.
Once the standard is finished, the companies will be that much closer to shipping products thanks to their early development work, Adams said.
Designing a 400GbE line card today calls for some assumptions that may have to change by the time the standard is finished. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) hasn't even formed a task group yet to hash out the options for a standard. John D'Ambrosia, who heads the 802.3 400Gbps Study Group that's been exploring what's needed in the new standard, expects a task group to kick off later this month. D'Ambrosia thinks the standard probably won't be finished until the first half of 2017, while others say it may come in 2016.
Among the questions the task group will grapple with is what kinds of smaller connections to add together to reach 400Gbps. The Huawei-Xilinx prototype uses 16 channels of 25Gbps, but the companies say they could use other configurations depending on how the standards process goes.