After a few years of effort, IBM says it has managed to make chips that have both conventional electronic parts on them as well as optical components all made using traditional chip manufacturing processes. As breakthroughs go, this one could herald faster bandwidth on broadband networks as well as inside the data center. Right now, information on chips is conducted using electrons as opposed to light, which is much faster. This new process brings the two technologies together on a single chip ideal for processing giant streams of data in real-time.
What IBM has done is place a channel capable of guiding light on an everyday chip with the addition of only a few steps and equipment in the manufacturing process — speeding up the potential communications on the chips and even between chips. It’s also chosen to build the chips at 90 nanometers, an older technology that means fabrication plants will have the capacity to make these new semiconductors. Making a semiconductor involves several steps where materials are deposited on a wafer and then etched away according to a set pattern. It’s like building a layer cake with equipment that can costs hundred of millions of dollars.
But this equipment is already there and even some of the most expensive elements of it — the masks that set the patterns of the chips — are set to stay the same under IBM’s breakthrough. Solomon Assefa, a researcher at IBM, says that putting the nanophotonics on the chips will require the additional of germanium as well as deeper box on the chip where the optical components will reside.
However it still uses the conventional CMOS manufacturing which lowers the cost of manufacturing on-chip optics and helps make the chip suitable for applications such as the data center. In 2010 IBM piloted this technology and now it is ready to actually start building the chips. From the release:
“IBM’s CMOS nanophotonics technology demonstrates transceivers to exceed the 25Gbps data rate. 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.”
Assefa couldn’t share IBM’s go-to-market strategy around the chips but expects the technology to handle everything from on-chip networking in high-performance computing and in big data processing workloads as well as speeding communications between data centers. That’s a pretty wide range of partners that IBM would work with to commercialize this technology.
Others are also trying to develop technologies here from Kotura and Luxtera to Lightwire, which was purchased by Cisco. Other companies, aren’t waiting for on-chip optics and are embedding fiber into top-of-rack switches. Using pulses of light to send information means more energy-efficient networking gear, no need for interconnects and much faster speeds that eliminate current bottleneck in higher performance computing and data analytics applications.