It has been a long road, but are we finally starting to see the light?

You hear about it sometimes, the talk of optical computing. Whether you watch Stargate, Star Trek, or Babylon 5, Sci-Fi has long been a place where in the future it was necessary to move many functions currently served by electrons, to photons. Either for storage, data transmission, or just plain circuitry and interconnects, Sci-Fi has pegged photons to be superior to electronics.

With recent outlooks and advances in the computer fields I’m starting to wonder if Sci-Fi might be right in this regard. High speed internet connections such as T1 and higher have been optical for a long time now, but the proliferation of more consumer ready optical lines such as Verizon’s FIOS is making big waves in an area once dominated by copper. Even DSL and Cable companies plug into high speed optical lines to form the backbone of their networks.

Holographic storage is another up and coming technology that promises to make big waves in the storage arena. Solid state disks are all the rage with no moving parts and fast response times, but what if solid state moved from simple flash chips to a holographic medium. A piece of transparent material easily produced that can be written to in a 3-dimensional state, allowing for multi-layer and cross-layer data storage on a scale current optical media can’t match, thus increasing capacity by an order of magnitude. This would also allow for better long-term data storage. It’s something being worked on heavily right now and might end up as the storage medium of choice to replace tapes in the next few years.

Another more recent development comes from Intel and they seem to be covering all their bases. Intel two years ago announced success with creating a chip that could transmit data with a laser array integrated right on the chip using mostly existing manufacturing processes, this would allow for chip to chip data transmission much faster than currently possible in motherboards. It would also eliminate the need for expensive optical transceivers to convert data to light and back on each end of the channel.

Recent details from Intel regarding the QuickPath interconnect supports the theory that Intel is setting themselves up to blow the doors of optical interconnects wide open. Quickpath standards are set up so that you could easily replace the integrated circuitry with an optical interconnect without having to change the standard at all. An optical interconnect could further reduce latency between CPU, Memory, and hard disks to the point that the components themselves would be the bottleneck rather than the interconnect. Given the progress Intel has made, and the up and coming platform from Intel that uses Quickpath, it might be only a few more years before they open the flood gates and unleash optical interconnects in servers and workstations.

While the use of fiber optics and lasers progresses smoothly and in different areas it seems that there is little doubt the future is indeed with light. Within our lifetimes it’s quite feasible that the majority of our electronics will be based in the realm of photons rather than electrons.

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