Huawei chip partnership looks toward Ethernet hitting 400 gigabits

The router maker demonstrated a line card with chip maker Xilinx that's intended for 400-Gigabit Ethernet

Huawei Technologies' booth at the 2014 Optical Fiber Communications Conference in San Francisco.

Huawei Technologies' booth at the 2014 Optical Fiber Communications Conference in San Francisco.

A demonstration this week by networking vendor Huawei Technologies and chip maker Xilinx signaled the optical industry's eagerness for 400-Gigabit Ethernet, a standard that is still at least two years away.

At the Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) conference in San Francisco, Huawei and Xilinx showed off a router line card that they say could handle 400Gbps Ethernet. The part is only a prototype and Huawei doesn't plan to sell a pre-standard product, but the demonstration shows the two vendors are already gearing up for the next version of Ethernet, said Chuck Adams, distinguished standards strategist at Huawei's U.S. R&D center.

Carrier connections that don't use Ethernet are already hitting 400Gbps. Vendors say they already have some types of 400Gbps technology on sale or in development and will be ready to ship 400-Gigabit Ethernet gear when the standard is complete. Some of the development going on with various 400Gbps parts is probably meant to influence the eventual Ethernet standard, said Dell'Oro Group analyst Alam Tamboli.

Ethernet is the mainstay of enterprise networking. Most carriers have traditionally used other technologies, but Ethernet now plays various roles in their networks as well.

With servers, PCs and mobile devices pumping more data across networks, both carriers and data-center owners are steadily demanding faster links. As with every new ramp in speed, the move from 100Gbps to 400Gbps is beginning on carrier backbones. But these days, the need for speed in massive data centers follows closely behind. That makes at least two markets that networking vendors are eager to serve.

Huawei and Xilinx put a stake in the ground on 400GbE at a Wednesday OFC session where they announced a long-term partnership and road map. Their first prototype is based on a pair of Xilinx FPGAs (field-programmable gate arrays) that are already in volume production, using a 28-nanometer manufacturing process, for use in other systems. In tests, the prototype line card has been able to process 400Gbps of traffic with low power consumption and no dropped packets, according to Gilles Garcia, director of wired marketing at Xilinx. A prototype coming next year will use just one chip, manufactured with a 20nm process, so it will use less space and power, he said.

Once the standard is finished, the companies will be that much closer to shipping products thanks to their early development work, Adams said.

Designing a 400GbE line card today calls for some assumptions that may have to change by the time the standard is finished. The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) hasn't even formed a task group yet to hash out the options for a standard. John D'Ambrosia, who heads the 802.3 400Gbps Study Group that's been exploring what's needed in the new standard, expects a task group to kick off later this month. D'Ambrosia thinks the standard probably won't be finished until the first half of 2017, while others say it may come in 2016.

Among the questions the task group will grapple with is what kinds of smaller connections to add together to reach 400Gbps. The Huawei-Xilinx prototype uses 16 channels of 25Gbps, but the companies say they could use other configurations depending on how the standards process goes.

Though Huawei may be alone in showing an actual 400GbE prototype at this stage, other vendors also have their eyes on the next jump in speed. Juniper Networks is developing an ASIC (application-specific integrated circuit) with 400Gbps capability that should be ready for 400GbE once the standard's ready, according to Stephen Turner, director of product partnerships at Juniper's routing group. Alcatel-Lucent has not announced any products for 400GbE but has other 400Gbps gear that's commercially deployed by France Telecom-Orange. Cisco Systems likewise hasn't announced any 400GbE technology, but last year the company introduced its nPower network processor with support for 400Gbps throughput.

Getting out ahead of standards and forming industry relationships such as the Xilinx partnership are key to Huawei's role as a major global vendor of telecommunications gear, Adams said. While the company in Shenzhen, China, once simply followed standards, it now participates in standards bodies and hopes to influence them, he said.

Huawei is the third-largest maker of routers for carriers' core networks, behind Cisco and Juniper, Dell'Oro Group's Tamboli said.

About one-third of Huawei's total revenue comes from its home market of China, with another third coming from Europe, according to Adams. The company is also a major player in other parts of Asia and in Africa.

In the U.S., Huawei has faced stiff opposition from federal regulators and lawmakers who have said it has links to the Chinese government that raise the danger of "back-door" product vulnerabilities. Huawei has denied having close government ties or shipping compromised products. The company is at an early stage of market development in the U.S. and is looking at developing relationships that would allow it to compete, Adams said.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is

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