IBM Announces Silicon Nanophotonics

One of the significant trends in recent computer system design has been the growing use of large-scale parallel processing.  From multiple-core CPUs in PCs to massively parallel systems like Titan at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, currently the world’s fastest supercomputer, and IBM’s Watson system, which won a convincing victory in a challenge match on Jeopardy!, the use of multiple processors has become the technique of choice for getting more processing horsepower.

These systems have achieved impressive levels of performance, but their design has its tricky aspects.  If the collection of processors is to work as one system, there obviously must be some mechanism for communication among them.  In practice, the capacity and speed of these interconnections can limit a system’s potential performance.  Even fiber-optic interconnections can be cumbersome with current technology: at each end, electrical signals must be converted to light pulses, and vice versa, by specialized hardware.

On Monday, IBM announced a new product technology that has the potential to remove some of these bottlenecks.   Building on research work originally described by IBM at the Tokyo SEMICON 2010 conference [presentation PDF], the Silicon Integrated Nanophotonics technology allows the fabrication of a single silicon chip containing both electrical (transistors, capacitors, resistors) and optical (waveguides, photodetectors) elements.

The technology breakthrough allows the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip, for the first time, in standard 90nm semiconductor fabrication. The new features of the technology include a variety of silicon nanophotonics components, such as modulators, germanium photodetectors and ultra-compact wavelength-division multiplexers to be integrated with high-performance analog and digital CMOS circuitry.

IBM says that the technology allows a single nanophotonic transceiver to transfer data at 25 gigabits per second.  A single chip might incorporate several transceivers, allowing speeds in the terabit per second range, orders of magnitude faster than current interconnect technology.

Probably the more significant aspect of the announcement is that IBM has developed a method of producing these nanophotonic chips using a standard 90 nanometer semiconductor fabrication process.  Although I have not seen any specific figures, this has the potential to provide significantly faster and cheaper interconnections than current technology.

The initial deployments of the technology will probably be in large data centers, supercomputers, and cloud services.  However, if IBM has truly licked the manufacturing problem, there is no reason that the benefits should not, in time, “trickle down” to more everyday devices.

Ars Technica has an article on this announcement.

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