Structured cabling fending off active optical cables in data centers, for now

April 12, 2011
Market report says data center managers' 'copper mindset' is one factor holding back widespread AOC deployment.

In LightCounting's most recent market report on active optical cables (AOCs), the market-research company says data center managers' "copper mindset" as well as "installation issued with structured cabling" will slow the adoption of AOCs in Ethernet-based data center networks. The report entitled Active Optical Cables - 2011: Positioning for the Next Wave of Growth says the primary market for AOCs continues to be high-performance computing or supercomputers with the InfiniBand protocol. However, last year marked the beginning of AOC adoption in data centers using the Ethernet protocol as well as adoption in telecommunications applications to interconnect long-haul dense wavelength division multiplexeers (DWDMs) and routers in central offices.

Brad Smith, senior vice president and industry analyst for data center interconnects with LightCounting, said, "The adoption in data centers is good news for AOC suppliers as it moves AOCs out of a reputation as a 'niche market' and into the mainstream of interconnect alternatives. Ethernet data centers will eventually be a huge opportunity for AOC suppliers as they bring many product benefits. However, adoption will be slow as Ethernet AOCs face complications related to business issues, data center managers' copper mindset, and installation issues with structured cabling."

The study also throws cold water on some prior hot-button discussion about AOC use in consumer markets. "The hype around AOCs using Intel's Light Peak in the consumer market has dissipated," the company said. "In fact Light Peak technology finally made its debut as a copper interconnect for Apple PCs called ThunderBolt. LightCounting's position is there are simply no consumer-electronics devices that require 10 Gbits/sec today and optical solutions cannot compete on price in this market with 5-Gbit/sec USB 3.0 copper cables."

Overall the AOC market reached approximately $40 million in 2010, according to LightCounting, with unit shipments of 150,000. By 2015 those numbers should climb to $100 million and 450,000 units, the researcher adds.

When announcing its market-report update, LightCounting described some of the dynamics of AOC sales in the high-performance computing market. The researcher said, "The 4x10G QSFP form factor dominates the business while the 12x10G CXP form factor encountered slow uptake. HPC systems are very expensive, costing upwards of $100 million and there are only a few HPC bids per year, resulting in incredibly fierce price competition with prices in some bids falling below manufacturing costs. The Chinese Tianhe-1A HPC gained the top position in the Top 500 HPC list and used several tens of thousands of AOCs to interconnect the computing clusters together. This system required 80-Gbit/sec links and two 4x10G [40-Gbit/sec] AOCs were bonded together to meet the bandwidth requirement, demonstrating that bandwidth of a single 40G AOC is not enough going forward."

Find out more about LightCounting's AOC report here.

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