Microsoft Speeds Up Its Data Center With Light and Mirrors

Microsoft Research is the first commercial customer of a new optical equipment module made by a seven-year-old startup that hopes its gear will enable servers to send and receive information faster. Lightfleet, based in Camas, Wash. sold an alpha version of its Direct Broadcast Optical Interconnect system, which uses broadcast light to connect computing nodes, to Microsoft’s eXtreme Computing Group, as part of a project to explore faster communication between servers in its cloud computing deployments.

Lightfleet’s gear looks pretty cool, and would help eliminate the bottleneck that occurs as information is sent inside servers and from server to server in dense computing environments. The company’s DBOI system uses light and mirrors to send bits from all compute nodes inside a server to all other nodes  at one time, rather than sending it via cables and a switch. So far, Lightfleet has raised $30 million in funding from angel investors and has 22 employees.

Other companies are addressing this bottleneck in a variety of ways that include using fiber in the data center, specialized gear or virtualizing the network fabric ( GigaOM Pro sub. req’d).  Intel (s intc) is proposing a similarly named optical cable technology called Light Peak for computer peripherals.

While Microsoft may have an industrial-scale strategy around its data center operations that seems antithetical to buying gear from startups,  its research arm shows that Redmond isn’t totally oblivious to new technologies to address the challenges of running hundreds of thousands of servers. Last week, I wrote about how Microsoft was looking for someone to work with solid state drives and ARM-based servers in its online services division.

Microsoft’s willingness to see the “light” when it comes to networking is just another example of how the shift to webscale computing may be opening opportunities for hardware and software startups, as the current generation of “commodity” x86 gear hits the wall. I will be leading a panel discussing  the prospects for hardware startups in a webscale world at our Structure 2010 conference in June, so we can see if this is the future or wishful thinking.