Where will the Chips Land? – Future of Active Copper and Active Optical Networking Cable Assemblies.

There is an expression, “let the chips fall where they may”. I guess I’m thinking in that metaphor because I am heading to another electronic equipment conference in Las Vegas. I am hoping to learn more about the future of Active Copper and Active Optical networking cable assemblies.

For many years, having active chips embedded inside electronic connectors and cable assemblies was a niche application solving unique electrical distance issues. Fast forward to 2010 and it appears that half of the SFP+ interconnect volume are Active Copper and Active Optical cables. QSFP+ and other next generation cables seem to have near future unit volume forecasting of 50% Active Optical versus Copper as a whole.

The current variety of embedded chip usage includes signal conditioners, EEPROMs, repeaters and optical/electrical converters. Next generation higher speed active embedded chip possibilities seem to be expanding due to solving electrical PCB trace distance degradation. Some developers are exploring whether to take retimer and four lanes times 10 lanes gearbox chips off the blade or box boards and put them on the usually higher performance embedded PCB cable plug. Others are looking at moving even the PHY controller chip on to the cable plug PCB. O/E chip developers are looking at bringing other primary functions within their new chips.

So for a few years we may see a boom of Very Smart Cabling. But is this active cabling complexity and cost increase going to be acceptable further in the future or are all these functions going inboard as two or one chip instead. Will optical performance and interconnects be necessary for as high as 75% of networking cabling shipped in 2013-2014? Will all optical systems including optical PHY chips be necessary by 2015 or sooner? If the optical interconnect becomes pervasive in the near future, then most cables may use some type of MPO photonic connectors that will provide further miniaturization, densification and increased port counts on blades and boxes compare to today’s connectors and cables.

I guess seeing where the chips may fall this week in Las Vegas may likely be different from where they might land at the same location in 2012 and especially 2014. So watch these chips carefully and be ready for more change.

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