IBM Develops Nanophotonic Switch
March 18, 2008 1:07 PM
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A visual representation of a CPU using nanophotonic switches to direct light speed traffic between cores on a chip.
IBM continues push towards light speed computing
In 2005 International Business Machines demonstrated silicon nanophotonic devices that
slowed down light
via clever reflecting methods. Then in 2006 it showed how a similar device could be used to buffer a full byte of information in stored optical pulses, a necessity for optical computing.
In December 2007, researchers demonstrated a silicon device that transformed energy from electronic impulses from a processor into light pulses -- the pulses in the 2005 and 2006 developments were manually triggered.
Now, IBM has made another
significant research breakthrough
in its quest to achieve optical computing. Researchers at IBM have announced that they have developed the world's smallest nanophotonic switch. The tiny silicon device, measuring a mere hundredth of the size of a human hair, is an essential step towards creating "light transistors," that allow chips to process at the speed of light. Such chips could greatly outclass today's chips in performance and speed, as today's chips rely on slower electrical communication through copper wires.
Before such chips, though, an important stepping stone IBM sees is the use of its optical technologies in on chip networks. The optical devices could be put to use as a bus between cores in
IBM's next generation Cell processors
or other multicore systems.
Yurii Vlasov, manager of silicon nanophotonics at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center states, "
This new development is a critical addition in the quest to build an on-chip optical network."
IBM's partially DARPA-funded research is published in the April 2008 journal
, titled "
High-throughput silicon nanophotonic wavelength-insensitive switch for on-chip optical networks."
The switch takes light converted by IBM's other devices from electrical signals and can direct it along multiple routes. This will eventually allow on-chip optical interconnects. IBM states that the device fulfills several key criteria making it ideal for use on-chip. First, they state, it is extremely compact. Secondly, it can process multiple wavelengths of light (known as colors in the visible spectra). This means that with each wavelength transmitting data at up to 40 Gb/s, the aggregated bandwidth can exceed 1 Tb/s.
IBM has shown the device is tolerant to heat. This is an essential characteristic for successful on-chip deployment as modern processors develop "hot spots" which migrate around, based on changing loading conditions.
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RE: Technically ...
3/18/2008 3:22:11 PM
Technically speaking electrons don't travel anywhere near the speed of light. In fact, in a modern low voltage processor they probably only move at a fraction of a millimeter per second.
The electric field, however, is what actually carries the information. I'm not sure what the value is for silicon but for copper the field transmits at about 2/3 the speed of light. Enough to improve performance, but probably not ground breaking in and of itself.
As you suggest, the real advantage is in heat savings. Modern processors generate most of their heat not in the transistors, but in the links between them. A lot of the power used by a chip is actually used to charge the capicitence of the millions of circuits between the transistors.
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