In summarizing its most recent analysis of the active optical cable (AOC) market, LightCounting explained that there is not so much an ebb and flow to the consumption of these devices as there is a spasmodic effect. "The AOC market will remain volatile as long as it is dominated by HPC [high-performance computing] InfiniBand products," the company said. "A single new HPC can use up to 40,000 AOCs, so the market can swing significantly if a new system deploys AOCs, or not." In total, slightly more than 305,000 units shipped in 2011, LightCounting said, underpinning the idea that a single order of 40,000 units will drastically impact the market as a whole.
Those 305,000+ units shipped in 2011 brought the total market close to $70 million, LightCounting says. It projects the total will rise to $175 million and 786,000 units shipped by 2016.
"The Ethernet data center community has taken notice of AOC technology," the analyst firm added. "Cisco's acquisition of Si-photonics startup Lightwire is yet another confirmation of the trend." Acknowledging that installing AOCs in congested, short-reach environments can be difficult, LightCounting nonetheless added, "data center managers love the low price of a high-bandwidth 40G link that is plug and play without all the connector costs and operating expenses associated with cleaning and repairs." It also cited the forthcoming Romley server from Intel as a driver of traffic to a data center's switch infrastructure.
LightCounting added, "Parallel optic transceivers still have a place in structured cabling for longer reaches, but AOCs are starting to own the 10- to 50-meter space, using low price as a weapon. SFP+ direct-attach copper cables are dominating the server uplinks as 10GBase-T is still waiting for 28-nm and AOCs are becoming very popular at reaches beyond the 5- to 7-meters of direct attach copper cables." The "waiting for 28-nm" comment refers to the lithography manufacturing process for 10GBase-T PHYs. Current-generation 40-nm manufacturing enables 10GBase-T per-port power dissipation to fall below 4W under certain conditions. Many anticipate a 28-nm process to emerge in 2013. Until then, LightCounting emphasizes, AOCs will represent a lower-power-consumption option.
The report that includes this and much more information about active optical cables is entitled "AOCs Supercomputers to Smartphones and Everything in Between; Inside and Out." As its name suggests, the report delves into the possibility that AOCs will serve not only data centers, but also applications like digital cinemas, professional video studios and mobile devices.