Unlock your chips full data transfer potential with Interlaken

As data consumption grows and chip designs evolve to meet this demand, Interlaken is the ideal high-speed chip-to-chip interface with efficiency, reliability and scalability.

Interlaken addresses modern chip-to-chip design challenges

System and chip designers are challenged like never before. The continuous growth in data consumption is driving demand for higher speeds and capacities, but designs also need to consume less power-per-bit at a lower cost-per-bit. Reliability is, of course, a key requirement, but not at the expense of efficiency and cost.

One of the chip design elements that is most critical is the chip-to-chip interface. Poor chip-to-chip interface design can lead to system bottlenecks and unreliable data transfers that can compromise the entire solution. Choosing the right chip-to-chip interface technology is therefore critical.

Interlaken provides a high-speed interface with efficiency, reliability and scalability. The design of the Interlaken interface ensures low power consumption and cost-per-bit without compromising on performance, reach or reliability.

Multiple design challenges


The challenge when connecting chips is to find an economic means of transferring data between chips on the Printed Circuit Board (PCB) implementation. This means as few pins and PCB physical connections, or trace-routes, as possible.

To achieve this, serial interfaces are preferred as they drastically reduce the number of pins required. Serial interfaces consume less power and are less sensitive to electro-magnetic interference compared to parallel connections. Serial interfaces have fewer connections that can be spaced effectively to reduce these effects. This increases the effective reach of the interface leading to longer trace-routes and more flexibility during design. This decreases the complexity and cost of PCB and chip design.


One of the important requirements for chip-to-chip interfaces is that they need to be transparent. Data needs to be reliably transferred from one chip to another without relying on higher layer protocols.

First, the chip-to-chip interface needs to ensure that there is “bounded disparity”, which means that the number of ‘1’s and ‘0’s transmitted are as equal as possible. If not, a Direct Current (DC) offset is introduced that can affect coupling capacitors or transformers on the line. This can lead to challenges in identifying voltage levels accurately and retrieving clock data. To compensate for this, an effective block coding mechanism is needed that will reduce the “running disparity”, the difference between the number of ‘1’s and ‘0’s, as much as possible.

The next step is to ensure that bits have not been corrupted during transmission. An effective Cyclic Redundancy Check (CRC) for each data transmission can indicate if errors have occurred, while a Forward Error Correction (FEC) can be used to correct any errors.

Finally, it is desirable to ensure that the flow of data is controlled so that receiving chips are not overwhelmed, which can lead to packet loss. For bursty data that is switched to different locations, flow control can be extremely effective in managing data bursts and ensuring maximum throughput.

Scalability, Configurability and Reuse

In an ideal world, each application will have a chip-to-chip interface that is optimized for that specific application, but it is far more desirable to have an interface that can be configured and reused to meet different requirements.

Enabling the chip-to-chip interface to scale to meet different data rates enables maximum reuse across multiple designs and applications. In addition, the ability to configure the interface to fit different SerDes (Serializer/Deserializer) lane configurations provides maximum flexibility in meeting application needs.

ASIC chip designs are often prototyped on FPGAs first. It is therefore desirable to have a chip-to-chip interface that can not only scale, but also migrate from FPGA platforms to ASIC designs with minimal impact. Today, FPGAs are often combined with ASICs, which requires chip-to-chip interfaces that can be implemented on either platform.

Introducing Interlaken

Interlaken provides a standardized serial interface that is agnostic of underlying SerDes implementations. It can also be configured to support multiple lane configurations.

Interlaken ensures reliable transfer of data over as few physical connections as possible. Interlaken provides mechanisms to ensure the integrity of data transfer as well as manage data flows to ensure that the chip is not overloaded. These mechanisms effectively increase the operational reach of Interlaken interfaces to allow longer chip-to-chip interfaces.

Interlaken inspired by XAUI and SPI4.2

Interlaken was introduced in 2006 by Cisco Systems and Cortina Systems to address the need for both a high-speed chip-to-chip interface and a reliable packet transfer mechanism. Available alternatives at the time were XAUI and SPI4.2 and both inspired the design of Interlaken, which combines the best of both.


XAUI, or 10 Gigabit Attachment Unit Interface, was originally introduced in the IEEE 802.3ae standard for 10 Gbps Ethernet. In the standard, the 10 Gbps Ethernet protocol stack defined a new parallel interface between the MAC layer and the PHY layer called XGMII (10 Gbps Media Independent Interface).

System and chip designers needed the option of implementing the 10G MAC layer and PHY layer on different chips. However, the XGMII interface requires over 70 pins to connect the MAC and PHY. As a parallel interface with a high number of connections, the effective reach was relatively short at only 3 inches or 7.5 cm. This made XGMII an impractical chip-to-chip interface.

XAUI was defined as an alternative “XGMII extender” interface. XAUI is a serial interface that maps the parallel data of the XGMII interface to 4 serial interfaces operating at 3.125 Gbps. Each interface requires two connections leading to a need for 16 pins for full duplex operation, which is a dramatic improvement on the over 70 pins used by XGMII. The effective reach can be longer than 40 inches or 100 cm, but is specified normally to 20 inches or 50 cm.

It is this efficiency that inspired Interlaken designers to adopt a serial interface rather than a parallel interface.

The disadvantage of XAUI is that it is limited. While the 8b/10b block coding used in XAUI helps in improving running disparity, it does not remove the effects completely. A CRC is used to ensure that bits are transmitted correctly, but there is no flow control mechanism. This is not needed for communication between the MAC and the PHY, but can pose a problem if XAUI is used for other chip-to-chip applications.


From a flow control perspective, the best example of an interface implementing this capability, at the time, was the SPI4.2 (System Packet Interface level 4, phase 2) interface published by the Optical Interconnect Forum (OIF) in 2003.

SPI4.2 was designed as a parallel interface between PHY devices and link-layer devices for 10 Gbps Ethernet, as well as OC-192 ATM and SONET/SDH.

One of the big advantages of the SPI4.2 interface is that a separate flow control interface is provided that allows the First-In First-Out (FIFO) buffer status of the receiver to be communicated back to the transmitter. The separate flow control interface enables the transmit and receive data flows to operate separately with their own flow control for each virtual port.

This ensures that the FIFOs at the receive side are not overloaded or starved. It also enables rate matching mechanisms, where the line rates on the transmit and receive sides can vary. This was the case with 10 Gbps LAN Ethernet, which operated at a different rate to 10 Gbps WAN Ethernet and OC-192.

Interlaken has adopted similar rate matching and flow control mechanisms as SPI4.2 using it as an inspiration for design.