The data center gets its first 100 Gbps optical chip

It's a frickin' laser, people!

Luxtera, which makes a optics chips that has characteristics of a standard silicon chip, has developed a hybrid chip for the data center market that can achieve speeds of more than 100 gigabits per second. Those are the same speeds that telecommunications firms are enabling via long-haul cables to handle the massive demand for bandwidth worldwide, but in this case are designed to handle the next wave of big data and networking-intensive applications inside webscale and cloud data centers.

Luxtera was founded in 2001 and builds chips that allow messages to be sent at the speed of light, but instead of using specialty materials that optics chipmakers such as Infinera use, Luxtera uses traditional silicon chips made using the CMOS process. This cuts down on the cost of the chips and makes it possible to use them for high-volume jobs, such as switching in the data center.

One cannot just add in an optical chip and expect it to work with the existing electronics on a board, so Luxtera created an integrated transceiver chip that combines transistor electronics with photonics on the same chip. This is cheaper, can be made in more traditional fabs and puts optical in reach of the data center operators. From the release:

Luxtera’s single chip opto-electronic transceiver includes four fully integrated 28Gbps transmit and receive channels powered from a single laser for an aggregate unencoded data rate of up to 112Gbps. The device is targeted for 100Gbps Ethernet, OTN and InfiniBand applications as well as emerging OIF (Optical Internetworking Forum) Short Reach (SR) and Very Short Reach (VSR) electrical interconnect to host systems. … The optical transceivers can be socketed directly onto the customers’ switch or server boards for both backplane and rack mount connectivity.

The story here is not just about a unique chip, but of hardware innovation racing to meet the needs of the next era in computing where the speed of transmitting information becomes as important as the speed of processing the information. Right now, there are bottlenecks on the chip and in the data center as the “brains” inside the servers wait for the information to get to them so they can process it. Intel (s intc) and other companies are working on similar research into silicon photonics, but so far, Luxtera has announced the fastest transceiver so far.

The ascendancy of fiber isn’t just happening in our home broadband and long-haul networks, but also must occur inside the data center and even on the chips themselves as we demand more from our computers and networks. Luxtera’s chip helps usher in the age of light inside the data center in a way that doesn’t require the replacement of all the existing gear. Luxtera will sample the chips this year with the chips supporting both Ethernet and Infiniband applications.