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Compatibles to remember

ProLabs wants to be as well known for optical modules as Kingston Technology is for memory chips, writes Pauline Rigby


or a long time, data centre operators turned to original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) as the obvious source for their cables and optical

modules. But OEMs are losing their magical grip on the optical connectivity market, says ProLabs, a UK-based supplier of ‘compatibles’. Compatible products can include optical

transceivers, as well as cables that have transceivers built onto each end, such as direct-attach cables and active optical cables. Te transceivers can vary in speed, configuration and form factor, depending on the application, but most are built according to industry standard specifications, designed to ensure interoperability. But interoperability is not a given. As part of

those standards, transceivers have some intelligence built-in, in the form of a memory chip or microprocessor that holds product information and digital diagnostics. OEMs typically add a product key code to the transceiver, so that if the code is not present when the transceiver is plugged into their equipment, the transceiver will trigger an alarm and may not work. Tis prevents other manufacturers from selling into that market, creating vendor lock-in. ProLabs thinks the market is ripe for

change. In a company survey conducted at the European Conference on Optical Communications (ECOC) in 2014 with more than 120 respondents, ProLabs found that quality, price, and service were ranked as the top three most important factors when purchasing fibre-optic components. Only 14 per cent of respondents said they considered brand names to be a top three concern. Te detailed results paint a fuller picture: 98 per cent of respondents ranked quality as one of

The coding lab at ProLabs’ new headquarters in South Cerney

their top three priorities when purchasing fibre optics, with 89 per cent highlighting price in the top three. In other words, customers want a low price, but they are not willing to compromise on quality. Tat’s where ProLabs comes in. ‘Most people

buy from the main vendors. Tey don’t realise that they can buy the equivalent product – oſten of higher quality, believe it or not – and at lower prices,’ explained ProLabs’ chief executive Nick Moglia. Moglia hopes the company can emulate the

success of Kingston Technology, now the world’s second largest supplier of memory chips. Yet, when Kingston was founded back in 1987, there were no third-party suppliers; everybody bought their memory from computer manufacturers, who had the market locked down. Kingston differentiated itself from its competitors through 100 per cent testing, so that quality was guaranteed. Before the compatibles market existed,

prospective optical transceiver purchasers had two options. Tey could buy the expensive OEM module, with the security of knowing


Customers want a low price but they are not willing to compromise on quality

they were buying a part whose quality was backed by the manufacturer – although counterfeit modules are a problem in their own right, as they are with any high-end branded product. Or they could buy a cheap, generic part from a Chinese vendor and take the risk that it wouldn’t work at all. ProLabs and other compatible vendors think there is a productive middle ground. Teir approach is simple: reverse engineer

the product, locate a reliable supplier, then bring the blank transceivers into their own warehouse, where the code is added and the transceivers are tested to make sure that they actually work (see Figure 1). Compatible

Issue 11 • Spring 2016 FIBRE SYSTEMS 19


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