IBM's Holey Optochip Uses Light to Transmit Data

A prototype optical chip IBM is demonstrating could be a boon for data centers and supercomputing environments looking for ways to speed up data transfer rates.

IBM researchers continue to work with light in hopes of solving challenges in the rapidly evolving tech world. The latest example is a new prototype optical chip that they say can transmit up to 1 terabits per second of data, a number that could have huge implications in enterprise data centers and supercomputing environments.

The Holey Optochip, which IBM researchers will present March 8 at the Optical Fiber Communications Conference in Los Angeles, offers a boost in bandwidth that would mean, at 1T bps, the ability to download 500 high-definition movies. It would take about an hour to transmit the entire Library of Congress Web archive through the chip, according to IBM.

IBM scientists created the Holey Otpochip by taking a standard 90-nanometer CMOS chip and putting 48 holes in it. The holes allow optical access through the back of the chip to 24 receiver and 24 transmitter channels, according to IBM. The result, the scientists said, is a very compact, high-performing and highly energy-efficient optical module that promises bandwidth speeds to handle the rapidly growing amount of data traffic that is being created and run through both corporate and consumer networks.

The development of the Holey Optochip is the latest step by IBM scientists in leveraging optics to address modern computing challenges, according to Big Blue researcher Clint Schow, who was part of the team that created the prototype.

€œReaching the 1 trillion bit-per-second mark with the Holey Optochip marks IBM's latest milestone to develop chip-scale transceivers that can handle the volume of traffic in the era of big data,€ Schow said in a statement. €œWe have been actively pursuing higher levels of integration, power efficiency and performance for all the optical components through packaging and circuit innovations.€

IBM and other vendors are looking to optics as a way of speeding up transfer rates of data. Using light pulses is faster than sending electrons over wires, according to Big Blue researchers, who said they are continuing to look for ways to leverage optical signals for products that are cost-efficient and can be manufactured at high enough volumes so that they can be widely used.

The Holey Optochip fits with that idea, according to IBM. The chip is made with components that are commercially available today, offering the promise that the chip could be manufactured at very high volumes and made commercially viable.

It€™s also energy-efficient, they said. The transceiver consumes less than 5 watts, which means the power used by a 100-watt light bulb could power 20 Holey Optochips. All this is important for businesses that may need to create high-performance computing environments, but need to keep power costs contained while running such powerful applications as analytics, data modeling and forecasting.

IBM researchers said the Holey Optochip is the latest proof that high-speed, low-power interconnects are possible in the near-term. They also argued that optical transmission is the only way that the tech field can keep ahead of the huge global demand for broadband, and the rise of such computing trends as big data and cloud computing.

IBM hopes to improve the technology€”with the aim of making it commercially available€”over the next decade. The work will be done in collaboration with Big Blue€™s manufacturing partners.