New IBM Chip Moves Data at Light Speed

IBM researchers are touting a new, tiny optical transceiver chipset that can move data at speeds up to 160 GB per second, which is eight times faster than previous optical components.

The new chipset generates fast data transfer rates because it uses light pulses to move data instead of sending electrons over wires. If the infrastructure is in place to do it, the new technology can enable one to download a typical feature-length high definition film in a single second, according to IBM.

For most consumers, however, this new chipset is only a glimpse of the future. The first use of this technology will most likely show up in business computing solutions well before consumers get a chance to move movies at the speed of light.

Matching Speed

“The achievement here is to pack an incredible amount of aggregate bandwidth into a very small optical transceiver chipset,” Marc Taubenblatt, senior manager of IBM’s optical communications group at IBM’s TJ Watson Research Center, told TechNewsWorld. The chipset is only 3.25 by 5.25 millimeters.

“From an IBM perspective, we’re interested in making ever more powerful computer systems, and to do that you’ve got to connect up the microprocessors in the system with ever-increasing bandwidth,” Taubenblatt explained.

“As the microprocessors increase in performance, you’ve got to connect them with bandwidth to match that — and that starts getting increasingly difficult. What we’re looking at is an era where we’re going to have to hook up microprocessors almost entirely with optics,” he added.

Instead of connecting high-powered computer systems with optical cables, IBM is shooting to connect at the microprocessor level — essentially on the same card. The new chipset would appear first in IBM’s supercomputing solutions, but it will take a few years.

“There’s a big industry out there to make electrical printed circuit boards, and we need that industry infrastructure to make optical printed circuit boards,” Taubenblatt noted.

Future Fun?

Even though the chipset would support downloading a movie in a single second, there are many hurdles to overcome before anyone will see household use.

“An interconnect such as this wouldn’t really have much, if anything, to do with movie download times,” Gordon Haff, an analyst for Illuminata, told TechNewsWorld. “Those are limited by the bandwidth of the pipes in the telco or cable company infrastructure — especially the ‘last mile’ to home or business. The connections within a server, optical or copper, serial or parallel, really have nothing to do with the speed of these networks.”

While IBM doesn’t intend to do any consumer-related development, the company says the low-cost, small-size nature of the chipset would allow others to build on it.

“In terms of the technologies that have gone into this optical chipset, the CMOS technology is here, the lasers, the photo diodes, a relatively well-known solder technology — all of it exists today, and a market could develop that’s more integrated with fiber and could enable low-cost transceivers in the future,” Taubenblatt added.

Until then, we can only dream about one-second HD movie downloads.

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