IBM Chips Look into the 'Light'

IBM claims its new chip production method will bring the same compute power found in its supercomputers to laptops.

IBM researchers are detailing a new microprocessor technology that will use light beams instead of wires to transmit data between processor cores, which could allow the company to place hundreds of cores on a single piece of silicon.

In a paper published in Optics Express Dec. 6, IBM researchers are detailing the new method of transmitting electrical signals through pulses of light instead of using traditional wires to connect the cores together. Big Blue also posted a YouTube video of the new transmission process on its Web site.

The new technology that IBM is describing is called a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator, which will covert electronic signals into light beams. The new modulator is smaller than similar devices, which then allows the company to integrate a whole network onto a chip as well as allowing it to incorporate hundreds of processing cores onto a single piece of silicon.

The result is a chip that will use less energy and heat, while increasing the bandwidth, according to IBM. While the company is describing the method as a breakthrough in chip technology, it was not clear when IBM, headquartered in Armonk, N.Y., would be able to translate the technology into a commercial product.

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However, IBM claims that this method of chip production will eventually bring the same compute power found in its supercomputers to laptops. This is possible since the light pulse allows data to travel 100 times faster while using 10 times less power compared to wires used in most chips, according to IBM.

The trend in the microprocessor industry now is to add more and more processing cores to the silicon as a way to increase performance. The problem is keeping these chips within the same thermal envelope. Both Intel and Advanced Micro Devices, the two leading producers of x86 processors, are each moving toward incorporating eight cores on a chip. IBM's Cell processor, which is used within game consoles, has nine cores, while Sun Microsystems' UltraSPARC T2 processor has eight.

"Just like fiber optic networks have enabled the rapid expansion of the Internet by enabling users to exchange huge amounts of data from anywhere in the world, IBM's technology is bringing similar capabilities to the computer chip," William Green, IBM's lead scientist on this project, wrote in a statement.

IBM is not the only company working on using light to eliminate the copper wires found in today's microprocessors. In July, Intel announced that it is closer to developing its own silicon photonics technique with tiny laser beams to transmit data from one chip to another. So far, Intel has been able to demonstrate laser modules that send data at 40 gigabits per second.

While IBM talked about notebooks, it's most likely that these chips will show up first in high-end servers before being applied to PCs.

The new IBM optical modulator works by converting the electronic signals into a light pulse and then carrying that pulse on a silicon nanophotonic waveguide. Once the input pulse is received, the modulator either blocks or transmits the pulse to the output waveguide. The modulator then converts the digital bits from an electronic signal into the light pulse.

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