There is no doubt that the biggest driver for high-speed connectors is the transmission of data over mobile devices, pushing ever-expanding demand for increased network bandwidth. The result is big challenges for connector manufacturers. Not only do they need to meet higher performance levels as speeds move from 10 Gbits/s to 25 Gbits/s and even 56 Gbits/s, but it also becomes a balancing act between performance and cost.
Part of the balancing act requires connector makers to leverage existing technologies as much as possible to reduce costs. They also need to understand the complete channel ecosystem – including the chips, printed circuit board (PCB) and cable, and work closely with customers to understand their requirements and applications. This includes all types of high-speed interconnect systems, such as backplane, I/O, and mezzanine.
“We’re constantly trying to understand the whole ecosystem,” said Nathan Tracy, technologist, system architecture team and manager of industry standards, TE Connectivity Data Communications, Harrisburg, Pa. “If we don’t try to understand the full channel – the silicon, the PCB, cabling, etc., then there is a chance we could miss an opportunity to deliver some additional value to our customer.”
“As connector manufacturers, we are always challenged by cost,” said Joe Dambach, new product development manager for high-speed I/O, Molex Inc., Lisle, Ill. “Cost is always critical to our customers and what that leads to is a real need to try to leverage existing technologies and enhance them to produce high-speed connectors.”
Design optimization also fits into the cost equation. “When we develop a new high-speed connector, we’ll go through many simulations. Our goal is to dial in those geometries for contacts, insulators, and air dielectrics between contacts,” Dambach said. “We’ll analyze that geometry from top to bottom to fully optimize the design for supporting high-speed data transmission, while trying to stay within normal plating, stamping and insert molding technologies.”
In addition to the technical tasks – looking at characteristics such as electrical performance, thermal management and signal density to deliver high-speed signals, as well as ensuring multi-generation interoperability, connector manufacturers also need to meet a buyer’s requirement for security of supply. This is likely the key reason why cross-licensing and second-source agreements have increased across the industry over the past ten years.
Connector makers appear to be ahead of the curve when it comes to the need to provide second-sources for their next-generation products. Many of them say that customers, particularly high-volume purchasers, are very reluctant to use a single-sourced product.
“The days of being sole-sourced are behind us,” said Tracy. “It’s becoming more the exception rather than the rule. With every new development, we think about who’s going to consume it; where is it going to be consumed; what are the technologies required, and who else in the industry would be a logical partner.”
“The customer wants a second source so it only serves us well if we talk about it right from the beginning,” he added. We do a lot of cross licensing and have a lot of relationships across the industry to enable the customer to have that security [of supply] that he needs with a second source.”
Second-sourcing becomes necessary, for example, when a connector footprint is changed to optimize the design for better crosstalk, isolation and to a certain degree better impedance matching, explained Dambach. “Now you have a different footprint. But to be able to get large-scale design wins at customers you’ve got to be able to bring a second source to play to ensure their reliability of supply and a level of competition in terms of pricing,” he explained.
This is why Molex, along with other leading connector makers, works with a number of competitors on cross-licensing and second-source deals. One of those deals is a long-term “preferential” agreement with TE Connectivity as a second source. Under this agreement, once a design is developed, deployed and finalized it gets shared with the other company. Why the relationship is described as preferential is because both companies perform interoperability testing between their products to prove that they offer a true drop-in replacement.
“We have a cross licensing relationship with Molex [for pluggable I/O] and that relationship allows us to share significant design details. It gives the customer the security of a second source but also gives the customer the security that these parts are made the same whether they buy from Molex or TE,” said Tracy. “They will operate the same and have the same characteristics and that is important to the customer. They want to see similar operation or channel performance whether they have Molex’s or TE’s connector because the silicon is so optimized for these details.”
Also in the I/O space, TE Connectivity drove the new Multi-Source Agreement (MSA) for high-density I/O connectors with enhanced thermal capabilities that will result in less energy to cool the networking equipment and ease system thermal design. The new microQSFP connectors can increase I/O density by 33 percent, while achieving enhanced thermal performance, said Tracy.
“We aren’t creating the thermal problem but we are enabling the solution,” he added.
The connector will support existing industry specs up to 28 Gbits/s per channel and is intended to support 50 Gbits/s PAM4 requirements and future data rates. TE expects to have standards-compliant products in the market during the first half of 2016. TE, along with Molex, Broadcom, Brocade, Cisco, Dell, Foxconn Interconnect Technology, Huawei, Intel, Juniper Networks, Lumentum, and Microsoft, are founding members of the MSA group.
It’s all in the Details