A Continuous Improvement Model for Interconnects within Amazon Web Services Data Centers

by Paul Yu, Al Hayder, Ipolitas Dunaravich, and Poorya Saghari | on

This blog post provides a look into some of the technical management and hardware decisions we make when building Amazon Web Services network infrastructure. Working with network engineers, we wrote this blog to reveal some of the work that goes on behind the scenes to provide Amazon Web Services services to our customers. In particular, this blog explores the complexity we faced when moving to 400 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) interconnects and custom hardware and software in the pursuit of more reliability and capacity than we could achieve with off-the-shelf industry-standard devices.


The Amazon Web Services network operates on a massive global scale. As the largest cloud service provider, we often have to solve networking challenges at a size and complexity that few, if any, have ever even considered. Over the last 17 years, Amazon Web Services has rapidly expanded from one location in Virginia to 100’s of data centers globally networked together across 32 geographic regions, over 100 Availability Zones, and over 500 edge PoPs (Points of Presence). We now manage enough optical cable to reach from the earth to the moon and back over six times, so upgrading, repairing, and accelerating the rate of expansion for our infrastructure comes with a unique set of problems.

In 2018, during capacity planning, we realized the sheer size of our network, and the amount of data our customers send along it, necessitated we move from 100 GbE to 400 GbE optics to stay ahead of demand. Past experience, from our move to 100GbE, had also taught us that higher data rate products have a corresponding higher failure rate. Amazon Web Services has a core tenet to ensure redundancy across all layers of our network, and we have been able to minimize and largely eliminate any direct customer impact from hardware failures. But, as we prepared for the transition to 400 GbE, we realized that this deployment would be significantly more complex than previous generations. This increased complexity, along with higher data rates, meant that there was the potential for a compounding situation that could increase failure rates and strain our network. In light of this, we changed our approach towards interconnects to make sure their quality met our standards and provided the availability our customers depend on. In this blog post, we will explain how Amazon Web Services established a continuous improvement model for the tens of millions of interconnects in our data centers and successfully reversed the trend of increased failure rates with increased data rates.

The evolution of interconnects at Amazon Web Services

Optical interconnects are critical components of data centers and telecommunication networks that allow data to be moved to where it is required. They connect fiber-optic cables between transceivers with integrated lasers and detectors that offer the ability to both transmit and receive optical signals. Historically, Amazon treated optical interconnects as commodities, relying on vendors who manufacturing transceiver optics and cables to validate their products against industry-wide standards. This largely mirrors the conventional approach of other hyper-scalers and cloud providers, as standardizing these products and making them as interchangeable as possible helps simplify the operations and tools we used to run data centers, and reduces overall cost. Although this approach worked well for many years, during the deployment of the 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) generation, we had to make reliability-based design decisions that incrementally reduced the margins of the link budget that had allowed a commodity-based approach to be successful. Although the reduction seemed small on paper, because we have tens of millions of interconnects, we saw a real and sustained impact. This would bring a new set of challenges that required significant investment to mitigate and solve.

Before the 400 GbE generation, optical interconnects delivered the required bandwidth through NRZ (non-return to zero) encoding, where there are two distinct levels (encoded as 0 or 1) driven at a specific signaling rate. For example, to achieve 100 GbE, we combined a 25 GbE signal over four fibers, or four wavelengths, for a total bandwidth of 100 GbE. To achieve 400 GbE, we had to not only increase the signaling rate from 25 GbE to 100 GbE, but also change the encoding to PAM4 (4-level pulse-amplitude modulation) which increases the levels to 4 (encoded as 00, 01, 10, or 11). This change in encoding enables each pulse of data to carry more bits and thus more information. You can see the change in the data rate and encoding, and the additional complexity that this results in, in the signal eye diagrams in Figure 1. Signal eye diagrams represent the time on the x-axis and the power levels on the y-axis. Transitions between the signal levels result in a pattern that resembles a series of eyes between a pair of rails. To handle this additional complexity, we needed additional components to help clean up and maintain the signal so that customer data can be transmitted with as few errors and dropped packets as possible.

Figure shows the increasing complexity of eye diagrams from 10G NRZ, 25G NRZ, finally to 56G PAM4. Not only does the number of signal levels increase from NRZ to PAM4, but the eye opening reduces at higher data rates, making the signal more prone to errors.

Figure 1. Difference between two distinct power levels for 10G/25G NRZ and the four distinct power levels for 56G PAM-4 is visible

One of the critical components that has enabled 400 GbE interconnects is DSPs (digital signal processors), DSPs sit in between switch application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs) and both transmit and receive OEs (optical engines) of the pluggable optics. When we move to higher baud-rates (a modulate rate or number of signal changes per unit of time), the conventional analog re-timers used in the 100GbE module generation do not provide the flexibility and performance to compensate for the additional complexity in electrical and optical channels. The DSP improves on this by taking an analog high-speed signal and converting it to the digital domain, where we can apply signal processing to clean up and improve the flow of data using several key tools. This provides better equalization, reflection cancellation, and power budget. It introduces more advanced receiver architectures, such as maximum likelihood sequence detectors (MLSD), a mathematical algorithm to extract useful data out of a noisy data stream. It also makes adding Forward Error Correction (FEC) possible, which adds a redundant signal that allows for the automatic correction of errors. Achieving the desired link performance depends on a detailed and complicated calibration process that involves numerous parameters. The DSP and module firmware (FW) are in charge of finding those optimal settings, and use complex calibration algorithms, which was the first time the industry has deployed these.

Not only does the technology itself add to the complexity of our interconnects, but so does our desire to diversify our supply chain. Due to the large scale of our fleet and supply constraints, we found it necessary to use multiple vendors. We needed this diversity, not just at the module and system level, but for critical subcomponents such as DSPs and switch ASICs. Planning ahead with vendor redundancy meant that we were able to ensure we could deploy enough capacity to meet our customers’ needs, even when the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated supply chain issues. But enabling a healthy supply chain makes interoperability in the network much more complex, as shown in Figure 2 where multiple vendors on switches, modules, and their critical sub-components such as DSPs and ASICs create a vast matrix of possible link configurations. The combination of both technological and interoperability complexity was a significant risk that we had to take actions to address.

Figure is a block diagram of the major components in an optical link in a data center. It includes a switch ASIC, optical module DSP with transmit and receive sub-assemblies. It shows that to form a full link, you can have as many as four different vendors for each of these major components, resulting in interoperability challenges.”

Figure 2. 400 GbE link showing the complexity of maintaining the interoperability of components from multiple vendors

Defining a continuous improvement model for interconnects

Due to the increasing complexity of both the modules and their firmware, we knew that we had to approach the deployment of 400 GbE interconnects at Amazon Web Services differently than we had previously. Rather than treat these interconnects as commodities that we would simply replace upon failure, we had to improve the speed at which we could respond to the data center’s needs. This led us to establish a model that would enable a continuous improvement cycle for interconnects, as shown in Figure 3.

Figure shows the full lifecycle of the interconnect continuous improvement model. It includes the major steps of product development of the optical modules, which leads to operational monitoring once they are deployed, and in situ improvement of those modules in the fleet which leads back to better product development.

Figure 3. Interconnect lifecycle continuous improvement model

This model tracks the lifecycle of our interconnects from Amazon Web Services’s product development process with its vendors throughout those products’ operation in our network. It required us to complete several initiatives that not only enabled us to continuously reduce the failure rates of our 400 GbE interconnects by enabling in-place upgrades of the transceivers while they were still installed in our fleet, but also apply learnings from the fleet and improve our product development process.

Our first step was to take a deeper role in the product development of optical pluggables. Normally, we relied on industry standards from Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers ( IEEE ), Optical Internetworking Forum ( OIF ), or Quad Small Form Factor Pluggable Double Density Multi-Source Agreement ( QSFP-DD MSA ), to define specifications. But those specifications were not evolving fast enough to catch up with our development cycles. Instead, we defined our own standards and sent them to our vendors. This let us customize our standards to our specific networking and data center needs. Our updated requirements include establishing unique test processes to help mimic the various switch ASIC to pluggable optic interoperability configurations that are present in our fleet. Overall, this lets us ensure that the designs of these interconnects have the necessary reliability to operate at the scale of our network.

To make sure that requirements on paper actually resulted in improved performance and quality, we could not simply stop at defining standards and had to take a leading role in the product development with our vendors. This meant not only working on component and system designs, but taking ownership in making sure the products work as we had designed it. This includes evaluating their initial prototypes in our own labs and providing direct guidance to vendors on how to improve their products. It also meant testing the long tails of the distribution of the production line against corner cases and under accelerated conditions to make sure that all products deployed to the fleet meet the requirements of our data center deployments. In order to ensure that this was scalable and long-term, we established several mechanisms to make every part that they shipped would continue to meet our standards. We added several gates to both the pre-production process and on the production line itself that allowed us to track and monitor module performance. To make sure that our testing remains as comprehensive as possible in light of changing requirements, new information from the fleet, or feedback from our vendors, we have continuously improved upon it. For example, we have added several environmental tests and more stringent test conditions that, at the time, were not covered by typical industry test methodologies. These mechanisms ensure that we catch emerging issues in the fleet early on, and enable us to adjust our product development process to respond quickly to changing requirements.

Architecting a monitoring system built on Amazon Web Services services

In order to understand whether we were improving the quality of our products by defining new specifications, we had to close the feedback loop. We needed to measure how tens of millions of modules were actually performing in the fleet. To do this, we built an operational monitoring service to track the performance of our products when deployed in our network.

We built this infrastructure with the same Amazon Web Services services that you are familiar with and communicate with through the very network of interconnects that we were monitoring. We show a simplified service diagram in Figure 4.

Figure shows the block diagrams for the interconnect monitoring service infrastructure built using AWS services. It starts from SNS notifications which are ingested through ECS that are processed and ingested into Redshift through Firehose. Scheduled ECS jobs dedupe the data and process it further to create Cloudwatch metrics and alarming that automatically cut tickets to our operational teams for remediation.

Figure 4. Interconnect monitoring service infrastructure diagram

First, we ingest Amazon Simple Notification Service (Amazon SNS) notifications vended by various networking tools and devices through Amazon Simple Queue Service (Amazon SQS) queues. These are sorted, prioritized, and forwarded to the appropriate handlers. The handlers use various Amazon Web Services tools such as Amazon Web Services Lambda functions , Amazon Fargate ECS containers , or Amazon Elastic MapReduce (Amazon EMR) jobs to load data from Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) buckets or Amazon Redshift /Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) databases. Then, additional handlers run on a scheduled basis to enrich, transform, correlate, and dedupe the collected data to get a clean signal. Next, we post this cleaned data to both Amazon CloudWatch logs and metrics, as well as load them into redshift tables using Amazon Kinesis Data Firehose . We use CloudWatch alarming to help track and monitor real-time operational metrics for unexpected deviations, while Quicksight dashboards make it possible for our team and internal customers to deep-dive into the data and visualize trends more easily.

It is worth noting our internal teams use the same services as any Amazon Web Services customer. Like any other customer, we are always looking to become more efficient and operate in ways that scale. For example, we initially used Glue jobs to process big data sets, as the number of requests we needed to execute was small. However, this became untenable as we created more metrics, because could not scale our service to handle the additional workload. In response, we evolved our infrastructure to use EMR clusters. This increased stability, though that robustness came at the expense of dedicated Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) servers that would sit idle for long periods of time. Much like what you might do to adapt in a similar situation, we are converting to serverless EMR to improve efficiency.

Our monitoring system made it possible for Amazon Web Services to track millions of 400 GbE interconnects during their entire lifecycle. This includes collecting, ingesting and alarming on data from: our vendors’ factories and manufacturing lines, deployment tool logs as the devices enter into our network, monitoring and remediation mechanisms that track operational performance in the fleet, and lab test results from analysis run on decommissioned devices.

Working with vendors, we raised the industry standards for measurement and data collection. This included collecting additional key performance indicators (KPIs), such as Pre-FEC BER (bit-error rate), which lets us detect signal degradation before FEC thresholds are exceeded. By acting on this metric, we prevent packet drops and errors in received data that have the potential to cause customer impact. We collaborated with our vendors to implement VDM (versatile diagnostics monitoring) metrics in their transceivers, which allowed us to ingest and track even finer-grained KPIs in our fleet.

Delivering improved reliability to our internal and external customers

Armed with the ability to monitor and track performance in our fleet and create a feedback loop, we now had to act on the vast amount of information we were collecting. As a result, we set a goal for in situ, or in production, improvement of our interconnects. We had to create mechanisms to improve the quality of our modules while they were operational and carrying customer traffic, as well as the ones that were still undergoing qualification or on the production line. These mechanisms include ones that are triggered when we detect specific failure modes using our newly established monitoring systems, in addition to campaigns that are pushed to production on a regular cadence throughout the fleet. When combined, these processes have helped us continuously raise the bar on interconnect quality. This was most important for the complex 400 GbE generation of interconnects that we had begun to deploy.

The efficacy of this new approach to interconnects and the tools that we created is reflected in the quality improvement that we have observed in the network. As you can see in Figure 5, there has been a 4–5x improvement in link fault rates between the 400 GbE modules that are running the latest vintage firmware compared to those that are using older versions. This large disparity shows that we were correct: the increased complexity of the 400 GbE generation of interconnects required a change in the way we do things. While link faults rarely result in actual customer impact because of the amount of redundancy that is built into the Amazon Web Services network, reducing faults is vital for maintaining the network capacity our customers require and reducing the operational burden on our network engineers.

A bar graph showing the relative failure rates of different interconnect technologies in the AWS fleet. With 10 GbE as the baseline, 100 GbE fails 4x more frequently, whereas 400 GbE with our continuous improvement mechanisms fails at only 1.5x the rate of 10 GbE. 400 GbE interconnects without our continuous improvement model fail at 7x the rate of 10 GbE.

Figure 5. Comparison of interconnect link fault rate performance by technology in the Amazon Web Services fleet

At Amazon Web Services, we are proud to say that we have successfully reversed the industry-wide trend of declining performance with each generation of interconnect technology. In fact, the 400 GbE generation’s link fault rate is already lower than that of 100 GbE and is actually approaching that of 10 GbE. This is a significant achievement that was only made possible by the mechanisms and processes that we implemented that allowed us to more closely monitor and improve the reliability of our 400 GbE interconnect products. We continue to utilize and enhance these processes as we work on the next generation of 800 GbE interconnects and beyond, so that we can further increase our up-time and deliver data to our customers as quickly and error-free as possible.

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Paul Yu

Paul is a Network Development Manager at Amazon Web Services. He works in the Networking Product Development organization on optical interconnects with a focus on building and maintaining the technology, tools, and systems that keeps Amazon Web Services data centers functioning.

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Al Hayder

Al is a Principal Networking Development Engineer at Amazon Web Services. He works in the Networking Product Development organization and focuses on enabling cutting edge scalable networking technologies.

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Poorya Saghari

Poorya is a Senior Network Development Manager at Amazon Web Services. He works in the Networking Product Development organization and focuses on driving cutting edge technologies to scale the Interconnect solutions enabling Amazon Web Services network.

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Ipolitas Dunaravich

Ipolitas is a technical marketing leader for networking and security services at Amazon Web Services. With over 15 years of marketing experience and 4+ years at Amazon Web Services, Ipolitas has been responsible for launching many of the managed networking services and features that run on Amazon Web Services’ network infrastructure.