Hyperscale data centers which house several thousand to tens of thousands of servers are the norm for data-intensive application areas such as artificial intelligence/machine learning (AI/ML), cloud computing, high-performance computing, quantum computing, and highly automated vehicles. The number of internet of things (IoT) devices worldwide is rapidly climbing, from 15.1 billion in 2020 to more than 29 billion projected by 2030, according to analysts at Statista. This only places more pressure on data center performance.
Copper interconnects, with their high conductivity, relatively low cost, flexibility, and heat resistance, have long played a key role in data center networks. These days, they’re mainly used in server racks. Copper, is, however, becoming less practical in the face of increasing network speeds, which have driven up the power and bandwidth required to reliably drive data signals over long runs of copper cables. In addition, networks are flattening out to deliver lower latency, while applications like AI/ML are leading to increased cluster size of the compute fabric with more I/O demand.
Increasingly, in rack-to-rack, room-to-room, and building-to-building configurations, optical data center interconnects are playing integral roles. Transmitting signals via light, optical interconnects enable higher bandwidth and speeds with lower latency and energy consumption compared to their copper counterparts. Unlike copper, photonic wires (waveguides) don’t generate heat. What’s more, in response to demands for high bandwidth, low latency, and low power, optical interconnects are being integrated deeper into the “guts” of data center systems. They enable more efficient processing of massive workloads, ensuring that resources are allocated properly for a given workload. Optical interconnects are well poised to find their way into greater prominence at the board and even at the chip levels, helping to overcome bottlenecks and spark faster data transfers at these levels. Silicon photonics and the push for co-packaged optics (CPO) are catalysts to the increasing role photonics will play in the future of data centers.