Microsoft Acquires Lumenisity, Maker of Hollow Fiber Optic Cables

December 15, 2022 by Aaron Carman

To achieve the peak velocity for next-gen communications, Microsoft has acquired Lumenisity, a pioneer in high-speed, low-loss optical fibers.

Aiming to advance high-speed and secure networking, Microsoft has acquired Lumenisity, a pioneer in the field of hollow-core optical fiber (HCF). This announcement comes shortly after Lumenisity completed construction on a new HCF manufacturing facility in the U.K., putting it in a prime position to shake up the market with its new HCF technology.

Developers are no longer limited by the performance of chips or data centers but rather by the latency of transmitting and receiving data. And while it's possible to increase the speed of processors, the speed of light remains a fundamental limitation. 


Hollowcore fiber bundled together with mechanically strippable insulation

Hollow-core fiber bundled together with mechanically strippable insulation. 


To help get as close as possible to this universal speed limit, Lumenisity uses hollow-core fibers to ensure that information is traveling in the fastest medium possible. This bump in speed makes Lumenisity's technology valuable for companies like Microsoft, where large-scale distributed computation can increase throughput and decrease latency.


Toeing the Line on the Speed of Light

Most engineers are quite familiar with the speed of light and the limitations that it imposes on designs. For smaller, low-speed designs, the speed of light is often approximated as infinite to make the modeling of electric circuits little more than an algebra problem. For high-speed, distributed systems, however, the speed of light plays an important role.

Prior to spinning out from the University of Southampton, the founders of Lumenisity recognized this limitation and wanted to provide designers with a way to extract the highest speed possible from optical fibers. Traditionally HCF cables are filled with glass, further limiting the speed at which information can travel. To boost the velocity of data travel, Lumenisity released its nested anti-resonant nodeless fiber (NANF).


The NANF hollow-core fiber

The NANF hollow-core fiber cross section shows the inner glass rings that allow for single-mode air-core fiber. 


NANF technology does more than replace a glass core with air. Inside a NANF-based fiber, there are several glass tubes lining the inside circumference of the glass cladding. The addition of these tubes makes NANF fibers a low-loss, low-latency, and highly-selective fiber. The fiber’s extraordinarily high extinction rate makes it predominantly single-mode. Additionally, using an air core instead of glass yields several other key advantages, such as higher power capacity and fewer nonlinear distortion effects.


Microsoft’s Need for Speed

As Microsoft improves its cloud infrastructure and computing services, the requirements for latency and data throughput become stricter and stricter. Lumenisity reports that NANF provides a 32% latency boost and a 50% envelope expansion for applications limited by distance. These gains may allow data centers and users to be placed further apart while still maintaining communication.

Beyond the cloud, Lumenisity believes its NANF technology may buoy other key industries, such as finance and healthcare. For high-frequency trading, NANF technology can speed up trade decisions (which compounds at scale), while the healthcare industry can benefit from sharing large datasets at a faster rate.


Reaching the Peak

Microsoft's acquisition of Lumenisity represents an exciting step forward for the computing industry because it will increase access to large-scale data and lower latency in all types of devices and applications. By using Microsoft’s resources, Lumenisity may further improve the attenuation and power-handling capabilities of its NANF fibers, allowing for more sparsely distributed data centers.


An example use of NANF HCF

An example use of NANF HCF highlights the mechanisms through which it can connect data centers and users. 


Lumenisity previously reported in its CoreSmart white paper that hollow-core fibers experience a round-trip time of only 670 µs for a 100 km spacing, equating to a phase velocity of 2.99x108 m/s—a mere rounding error from the speed of light. As NANF technology is deployed in the field, it is almost certain that Lumenisity will improve the fiber. One thing that is certain, however, is that there are very few phase velocity improvements on the horizon (barring breaking the laws of physics, of course).

As we reach the finish line for optical fiber phase velocity improvements, it is interesting to think how designers and engineers will react to the paradigm shift. Leveraging the linearity of NANF may improve the spectral efficiency for fiber communication, allowing more information to be transmitted. 



All images used courtesy of Lumenisity.