Researchers at IBM recently announced a nanoscale silicon switch that can direct trillions of bits of data per second within an optical network. The switch could make it possible to incorporate the speed and bandwidth of a telecommunications network into a personal computer, say the researchers. This is an increasingly important goal for engineers as they look for the best design for future multicore machines–computers with more than one processing center.
The advance gives researchers more control over where bits are directed in an optical network smaller than a fingernail. “We’re talking about routing a terabit per second through a single switch,” says William Green, an IBM researcher who worked on the project. Such performance is comparable to what’s achieved by very large racks of mounted equipment for telecommunications fiber optics.
Today’s top-of-the-line computers come with two or four general processing cores, but within the next decade, engineers expect to build computers with tens of cores. One of the main problems with making a many-core machine is that it’s unclear how to let all the cores communicate efficiently with each other and with other components in the computer that lie off the chip, such as memory. Currently, all of this communication is conducted over metal wires that are etched into chips and circuit boards. But wires have an intrinsic resistance, which limits the speed of data. In addition, the flowing electrons can produce electrical interference and heat that can cause computation errors.
Optical devices and waveguides built into the same silicon used to make chips are promising alternatives to electronic components and metal wires. Within the past few years, there’s been a flood of activity in this field, known as silicon photonics, from IBM, Intel, Sun Microsystems, Hewlett Packard, MIT, Columbia University, and the University of Southern California, to name a few. Researchers have steadily been creating ever more efficient silicon-based devices, such as lasers, modulators that encode data onto light, detectors, and filters that clean up signals as they travel through a network. In fact, Sun Microsystems was recently awarded a $44 million contract from the U.S. Pentagon to investigate approaches for replacing metal wires with beams of light.
While there are many pieces that are necessary for intracomputer optical networks, IBM’s switch announcement is an important step toward making such a system practical. “There have been a lot of advances in silicon photonics,” says Keren Bergman, a professor of electrical engineering at Columbia University, but IBM’s switch “is very important for being able to make optical networks on chips.” Because the device routes a number of different wavelengths of light to various parts of a chip or the system, engineers don’t need to build point-to-point waveguides to each destination in a system. “This enables you to generate and route photons to multiple destinations in a more efficient way,” Bergman says.