IBM Lights Up Silicon Nanophotonics for Big Data
IBM announced a major advance in the ability to use light instead of electrical signals to transmit information for future computing. Referred to as Silicon Nanophotonics, the technology allows the integration of different optical components side by side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip, using sub-100 nanometer semiconductor technology.
Big, Fast Data – Without an Interconnect
Silicon Nanophotonics could provide answers to big data challenges by seamlessly connecting various parts of large systems, whether few centimeters or few kilometers apart from each other, and move terabytes of data via pulses of light through optical fibers.The technology uses pulses of light for communication and creates a “super highway” for large volumes of data to be exchanged at high speeds between computer chips in servers. This alleviates the cost and bottlenecks presented by traditional interconnect technology. The research has potential ramifications for the cost and speed of future data center networks, and potential implications for design as well.
“This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM,” said Dr. John Kelly, Senior Vice President and Director of IBM Research. “This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications.”
The challenge of manufacturing these chips was addressed by adding a few processing modules into a high-performance 90nm CMOS fabrication line. A variety of silicon nanophotonics components, such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators, and detectors are integrated side-by-side with a CMOS electrical circuitry. As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, providing significant cost reduction over traditional approaches.
IBM’s CMOS nanophotonics technology demonstrates transceivers to exceed the data rate of 25Gbps per channel. In addition, the technology is capable of feeding a number of parallel optical data streams into a single fiber by utilizing compact on-chip wavelength-division multiplexing devices. The ability to multiplex large data streams at high data rates will allow future scaling of optical communications capable of delivering terabytes of data between distant parts of computer systems.
It has developed a scalable, silicon nanophotonics chip to improve communications and processing for big data centers.
The chips use pulses of light to communicate between chips in servers, racks and supercomputers. With the new system in place, IBM’s chip can exceed next-gen standard data transfers of 25 Gbps.
These speeds are possible because the optical components on same chip as the processors. The processors still use electrical circuits, but the chips convert the electrical information to light pulses, which then transfer between chips. Upon arriving at a new chip, the light is then transformed into electricity again to be processed.
“We’re basically attacking a fundamental problem,” lead scientist Dr. Solomon Assefa told me. “Communication in computing systems. For example, look at how search is done. When someone queries, it goes to a big data center. It doesn’t just go to a single processor. You have to connect many racks and processors.”
The key innovation isn’t just the technology, though. It’s the fact that its commercial and scalable. The research team at IBM developed the chip so that it can be scaled using conventional manufacturing processes, which is what they’ve been working on for the past two years since their initial breakthrough.
“So they will be cheap,” said Assefa. “Especially if you compare them to what already exists, which requires more assembly of complex parts. We’re bringing cost of optics down to silicon level.”