Five Key Factors Driving the Need for Optical I/O in Telecommunications

by | Jul 19, 2022

Telecommunications has rapidly changed over the last 20 years, with no end in sight. The field has gone from point-to-point communication for connected homes and offices to people connected virtually anywhere. As 5G and mmWave technologies open up new avenues of bandwidth, the industry faces challenges that stem from outdated legacy technology holding back progress and ways of delivering connectivity. The practical truth is that copper-based interconnects and cabling are approaching their limits for the telecommunications industry — especially in the post-5G age.

Here are five reasons why telecommunications companies should be exploring optical I/O to enable the next generation of connectivity:

1. Bandwidth Demands are Scaling to Astronomical Levels

A modern data center can contain hundreds or thousands of cabinets or frames called racks. Each rack can contain anywhere from 10 to 40+ bays or shelves. In a traditional aggregated architecture, each shelf contains a server (in this context, “aggregated” is taken to mean “collected,” “gathered,” or “grouped”). In turn, each server features a motherboard containing one or more XPUs (CPUs, GPUs, FPGAs, ASICs), memory in the form of DDR DRAM modules, and storage in the form of solid-state drives (SSDs).

2. Creating New, More Efficient Networks

The advent of 5G brings an entirely new way of delivering connectivity, with beamforming technology that enables separate, narrow beams directed to individual devices. This requires much more complex systems with compact, lightweight, low-power antenna arrays that need to be mounted 100 meters apart throughout the landscape. With optical I/O technology, lightweight cell structures can be disaggregated from baseband units (BBUs), providing more efficient architectures for distributing compact antenna arrays while delivering the processing power needed to be effective.

3. New Technology Standards Require Better Physical Efficiencies

There are many physical issues that threaten signal integrity. With copper cables, any increase in data rates results in shortening the reliable signal transmission distance. On top of this, signal integrity suffers from dense electronic installations, requiring shielding against electro-magnetic interference (EMI). This shielding amounts to thicker, heavier cabling — adding size and weight to network systems. Optical cable is physically superior: 1) it is much less likely to be affected by EMI; 2) it transfers data over longer distances — up to 2km; and 3) it is significantly lighter and more compact.

4. Increasing Signal Bandwidth While Decreasing Power

In telecommunications, bandwidth is ultimately revenue. Increases in bandwidth using copper cabling means increases in power draw. By moving I/O into the optical domain, signal bandwidth can be increased without the power penalties normally associated with copper-based I/O operations. Electro-optical I/O solutions multiply the information brought in and out of the package up to 1,000x while lowering the overall I/O power consumption by up to 90 percent.

5. Enabling New Use Cases

Optical I/O signaling provides many benefits including improving bandwidth, latency, and power efficiencies. In the near term, the use of optical I/O enables the development of base stations that are substantially more efficient than has previously been possible. In the long term, optical I/O enables a level of flexibility that will enable even more innovation. As engineers take advantage of base stations with lighter weight frames, supporting a greater number of phased array antennas, and achieving higher throughput using disaggregated signal processing, new possibilities open up. Already, use cases such as the automation of large warehouses, logistics operations, assembly plants, and more are being imagined. With the higher throughput and physical capabilities of optical I/O, these ideas can become reality.

Ayar Labs’ TeraPHY™ optical I/O chiplet is the most advanced in-package option for efficiently coupling the electrical and optical domains.


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Expanding Bandwidth and Flexibility for Telecommunications Using Optical I/O

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