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Microsoft to Go All-Wireless in Datacenters? They're Testing It


Microsoft is looking to test a wireless network inside a data center that’s located near the tech company’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington.  In a recent FCC filing, Microsoft expressed its interest to look into the potential for wireless communications to supplement the wired communication links in data centers.

The company, upon being questioned about the filing by Light Reading, chose not to divulge any further information. Microsoft did however, mention that it would be utilizing equipment from the network-testing vendor Keysight Technologies for the tests. Microsoft’s test request received FCC approval in January.

In theory, this is a game-changer.  If you’ve ever worked in a DC, you know that cable management is a huge amount of work.  There’s running the cables, managing the conduits/trays/etc., making sure cable #14,316 that is supposed to go into port #28,622 is in the correct connection, etc.  If you could just pop cables into racks and power them on and they magically talked, that’d be nice.

Microsoft’s proposal includes several intriguing factors, one of which is the use of spectrum in the 246GHz-275GHz range. This enormusly highband spectrum has been projected as a candidate for use in potential future 6G networks. It’s possible that this kind of spectrum could transmit enormous volumes of data. However, due to the physics involved in highband spectrum transmissions, broadcasts may not be able to travel great distances.

Undeniably, Microsoft maintains that this “sub THz” spectrum would be perfect for utilization within data centers.

“Sub THz links bring several features to the table that make them appealing for use in data centers,” the company proclaimed in its FCC submission. “To begin with, highly directed beams achieved by large element antenna arrays allow multiple communication links to coexist through spatial multiplexing; the brief communication range of sub THz beams due to high atmospheric attenuation enhances spatial reuse. The directional antenna arrays facilitate the creation and dismantling of RF links as needed. A vast indoor operating environment and the capacity to bolster the building walls to minimize RF propagation enables the establishment of broad-bandwidth high data rate links with minimum interference to potential outdoor deployments, fostering effective spectrum sharing and coexistence.”

Microsoft WifiInterestingly, the company also alluded to free-space optical (FSO) technology in its submission. FSO employs light propagating in free space – as opposed to inside cables – to wirelessly transmit data.

It is worthwhile to note that FSO is not a novel concept. This technology was first introduced in the 1960s and several FSO companies in the early 2000s endeavored to portray the technology as a viable option for backhaul when 3G networks were just beginning to be established. The subject has been resurrected in today’s 5G era.

Microsoft has acknowledged that Free Space Optics (FSO) in data centers has been examined in the past. They described the optical links as having unsatisfactory performance in data centers due to the challenge of accurately steering the optical beams amidst vibrations. They foresee that sub-terahertz RF (radio frequency) will not be impacted by these alignment problems due to the considerably large and adaptable beam width. They believe the capability to swiftly electronically direct the RF beam will allow the establishment of suitable control loops to further reduce the challenges brought about by equipment vibrations.

The fact that Microsoft is looking into communication within data centers shouldn’t come as a shock. In the last quarter of the previous year, the company’s capital expenses surged to $9.7 billion, marking a 55% hike from the same period a year earlier. This surge is partly due to the investments made in high-performance computing required to operate AI technology in Azure cloud data centers.

Light Reading has reported that these substantial AI investments are also spurring the demand for novel communication technologies in data centers. The core problem is the necessity to link all the GPUs (Graphical Processing Units) which form the backbone of AI development. Suppliers such as Corning and Coherent are eager to sell their communication components to data center operators who are aiming to enhance communications within their data center operations.

“Following a torrid pace of leasing in 2023, Microsoft continues to be the most active leaser of data center capacity amongst the hyperscalers,” wrote the financial analysts at TD Cowen in a recent note to investors, comparing Microsoft against other hyperscale companies like Amazon, Meta and Google. “Furthermore, our checks indicate that the driver behind the [Microsoft’s] heavy data center capex investment is its internal view that there is a clear pathway to monetizing AI via the integration of AI into both its existing product set and the launch of new AI products. This, coupled with its selection of an AI deployment architecture ahead of its hyperscale peers, has given Microsoft a notable head start in securing [data center] capacity vs. peers.”

Thus, it’s possible that a renewed interest in extremely highband spectrum, coupled with investments in FSO technology, is driving Microsoft’s interest in its new data center tests. That interest may also create challenges for companies like Cisco, Corning, and Coherent that are looking to sell optical hardware for high-speed communications inside data centers.

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