Silicon photonics is ramping up to be one of the more interesting technologies to emerge over the last 10 years. The problems today are simple, but the solutions are hard. We need more bandwidth between everything. We need higher bandwidth between servers in datacenters, we need faster connections between datacenters, and we need fast connections connecting the entire telecommunications infrastructure. And given the challenges with Moore’s Law, it’s becoming harder and harder to shrink silicon and connect those pieces together. Enter silicon photonics—the utilization of optical I/O for rapid transmission of data. One company deeply involved in silicon photonics is GlobalFoundries, a leading specialty fab.
I’m embarrassed to say I cover the company closely and didn’t even know how deeply it was engaged in the technology. Maybe it was me napping or the company stealth marketing, but, nonetheless, it’s a player in SiPho. It has become a player in the market, and I believe now holds at least 10% photonics foundry market share. I want to dedicate this post towards shedding light on how the company managed to quietly accomplish this, and where the business stands today.
How GF got into the silicon photonics business
As these things usually go, GF’s initial foray into the silicon photonics business began with an acquisition. Back in 2015, it purchased IBM’s Microelectronics business adding over 16,000 patents and applications, experience, and expertise in the development, design and manufacturing of semiconductor technology. Along with it, the company gains access to the silicon photonics know-how that has been incubating for over 10 years through IBM’s research efforts in RFSOI (RF Silicon-on-insulator), which its silicon photonics would eventually be based upon.
This acquisition was followed up in 2016, with GlobalFoundries engaging with its customers announcing its silicon photonics roadmap that initially offered a solution to 5G fronthaul and Inside Data Center (IDC) market, for bandwidths of 40 Gb/s at distances of 10km or less. To unlock a larger market opportunity and realize optical communications the company partnered with Ayar Labs, a startup specializing in optical I/O solutions for silicon, in 2017. Specifically, the two companies committed to co-developing and commercializing differentiated silicon photonics solutions, leveraging GF’s 45nm CMOS fabrication process and Ayar’s CMOS optical I/O technology. The result, according to the companies, would offer as much as 10 times higher bandwidth and as much as 5 times less power than traditional copper I/O.
In 2018, GF unveiled new details around its silicon photonics roadmap. It announced that it had qualified its first 90nm manufacturing process on 300mm wafers. GF utilized this 90nm RF SOI process to build its silicon photonics platform, 90WG. According to GF, the platform has the capability to support 100Gb/sec per wavelength, thus able to support client side data rates up to 800Gbps. GF also announced at that time that its
next-generation silicon photonics platform, 45CLO, would be manufactured at its Malta, NY fab in 2021.
What it’s up to now
Flash forward to now and the demand for silicon photonics technology and regard for the technology as a solution to datacenter connectivity issues has only grown. GlobalFoundries VP of silicon photonics, Anthony Yu, recently shared some updates on what’s been going on in its silicon photonics business, and some information about the sector at large as it currently stands. According to Yu, the company has been addressing the data center market with its 90nm platform, but always with an eye towards the future targeting terabits-per-second bandwidths with chip-to-chip interconnect.
From 2017-2019, GF and Ayar Labs’ partnership made significant inroads, producing results such as a supercomputing chiplet that was co-packaged with Intel last year as a part of its DARPA PIPES (Photonics in Package for Extreme Scalability) Project. There was update last week here. The goal of the PIPES project is to utilize optical I/O to bring high data throughput, ultra-low power, and the ability to transmit over longer distances to the CPU/SOC. I had the chance to chat with Ayar Labs CEO Charlie Wuischpard last week and came away impressed.
Finally, in 2019, GlobalFoundries also announced a new partnership with MACOM Technology Solutions Inc. to scale silicon photonics technology up to hyperscale cloud data center and 5G networks. To achieve this, the companies announced they would use GF’s photonics offering, 90WG, to enhance MACOM’s Laser Photonic Integrated Circuit platform to better support the demands of these applications. The two companies claim this will enable mainstream L-PIC deployments for these hyperscale data center interconnects and 5G network deployments at 100G, 400G, and “beyond.”
The booming datacenter business is only expected to grow from here—it’s projected that by 2021, it will account for 20.6 zettabytes of IP traffic per year. To get an idea of the growth rate, in 2017 it was at 9.1 zettabytes per year. Along with this, grows the need for faster interconnects. GF estimates that SiPho-based transceivers, which includes both III-V semiconductors as well as silicon photonics based modules, will make up a large portion of a $4B market by the year 2024, due to an impressive 44.5% CAGR. That’s a big addressable market for GlobalFoundries. Through strategic acquisitions, such as IBM’s microelectronics business, and fruitful partnerships with the likes of Ayar Labs and MACOM, GlobalFoundries quietly became a force in silicon photonics. It’s already captured 10% of the foundry business—if it continues at this rate, it will soon be impossible to overlook.
Note: Moor Insights & Strategy writers and editors may have contributed to this article.