By Dario Gil
Silicon deserves lot of credit for enabling the digital revolution. Silicon-based chips power everything from cell phones to supercomputers.
Light is another critical factor in our digital lives. Behind the scenes, fiber optic cables carry a flood of voice and data communications for the Internet, telephone lines and cable TV.
But I believe that the real magic happens when light and silicon meet–in the realm of silicon photonics.
IBM Research scientists and engineers have achieved a major milestone that could accelerate progress in this area. They have invented a silicon photonics device that combines electrical and optical components on a single chip, and which can be mass-produced using conventional chip manufacturing techniques. Read about the technical details here.
This breakthrough paves the way for game-changing advances in everything from high-performance computing to Internet-scale data centers. By easing data traffic jams in all sorts of computing and communications systems, our technology enables cloud computing and big data analytics to achieve their full potential.
Our first device will soon make it possible to manufacture optical transceivers capable of transmitting 100 gigabits of data per second. That means that you’ll be able to download an entire high-definition movie in just two seconds.
When it comes to moving data, light is vastly superior to electrical signals sent over wires. With light, there’s very little signal loss, so data can move at higher speeds and over greater distances. Over the years, since the initial fiber-optics breakthroughs of the 1970s, engineers have moved light ever closer to the heart of computing, the microprocessor. Now, with our advance, it’s there in a way that makes economic sense.
This announcement shows that we will continue to lead the world in innovating new chip designs and in integrating chips with computing systems and data centers. It’s part of our pledge to invest $3 billion over the next decade in producing major breakthroughs in chip technologies.
IBM Research has a different approach to incorporating light in computing than most others in the tech industry and academia. Our scientists have been pursuing this quest for more than a decade.
Transceivers convert optical signals to electrical pulses and back again much like translators at the UN translate speeches on the fly during meetings and conferences. In today’s conventional computing, transceivers are placed on separate chips and they’re not tightly integrated with the electrical integrated circuits that sit next to them. Further, they use a type of light-transmitting technology that doesn’t extend economically to the distances data needs to travel within today’s mega-data centers, which can be up to two kilometers long. These two limitations add costs for computer makers and data center operators.
Our technology, called CMOS Integrated Nano-Photonics, places the transceiver and the electrical circuit on a single chip so there’s less complexity in assembling the final product. No need for technicians to manually attach microscopic fibers to electrical connectors. Also, less space is required. When you put millions of transceivers in a data center, every bit of saved space matters.
Our system is highly efficient because we move four channels of light within a single fiber, rather than one channel per fiber. Once again, less complexity.
The amount of digital data we create doubles every two years, and, by 2020, market researcher IDC predicts the digital universe will reach 44 trillion gigabytes. Unless scientists produce radically new technologies, we’ll be faced with a digital traffic jam that will make the Cross Bronx Expressway (New York City’s most congested highway) seem like a race track in comparison. I’m proud that IBM scientists are out front in dealing with this data jam before it becomes a colossal problem for businesses and society alike.