Intel CTO Demos Hybrid Silicon Laser for First Time

Chip maker gives its own Developer Forum a glimpse of the future "mega-data center" with the ultra-fast optical processor.

SAN FRANCISCO—Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner gave about 2,000 software developers a glimpse of the future of data centers—and perhaps of all IT instruments—Sept. 26 during the opening session of the Intel Developers Forum here at the Moscone Center West.

Intel, together with researchers from the University of California-Santa Barbara, had announced on Sept. 18 the successful creation of the worlds first electronically powered hybrid silicon laser using standard silicon manufacturing processes.

Rattner, in charge of the chip-making giants research and development operation, demonstrated the hybrid silicon laser for the first time publicly at the forum.

These optical silicon laser processors theoretically are capable of "tera-op"-type performance—meaning a full order of magnitude faster and using less power—than conventional chips.

They would become the key building blocks of what Intel calls "mega-centers"—or super data centers—of the future.

"Were talking terabits of I/O performance, instead of gigabits, and terabytes of bandwidth over gigabytes," Rattner said.

The problem with putting an electric current through traditional silicon is that you get heat as a byproduct, Rattner said.

"Using this new architecture, you get laser light instead," he added.

Rattner then proceeded to fire up four small laser points onto a screen using the hybrid silicon processor. Taking out his hotel card key, he showed that he could block the light at will by holding it in front of the chip.

"So there you go," Rattner said after the simple demonstration, which earned a round of applause.

"Now you can go home and tell your friends you saw the worlds first public demonstration of a hybrid silicon laser. Not too many years from now these will be powering data centers, laptops, who knows what else."

Intel and UC Santa Barbaras researchers—led by Prof. John Bowers—have been collaborating in a field Intel calls silicon photonics—the creation of on-chip components that can use light to transmit data.

The researchers latest work involves the process of integrating a laser directly into a silicon chip.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read about Intels plans for tera-scale computing.

Intel and UC Santa Barbara combined indium phosphide and silicon into one unit to make the hybrid silicon laser. When the voltage is beamed into the device, light is generated and enters the silicon waveguide to make a continuous laser beam. That laser beam can be used in a lot of ways to transmit data, Rattner said.

"But its still far from being a commercial product," he said.

Intel has been exploring for some time different ways to use silicon photonics to replace electrical interconnects, which use copper wiring, to speed up the vital connections that move data into and out of its processors.

The prospect of moving from electrical interconnects to silicon photonics is a difficult one, however. Among other things, photonics devices are relatively expensive, complex and, to date, have required what Intel says are exotic materials.

This development, Rattner said, conquers "one of the last major barriers" to making cheaper, high-bandwidth silicon devices to use with computers and data centers in the future.

"One optical fibre can transport up to 1TB of data I/O," Rattner said. "Thats about a 50X improvement over what has been done with copper wires."

Rattner also reported that Intel is making great strides in lowering power consumption by simplifying power distribution—"for example, were now using single voltage rails," he said—so that redundant, and power-sapping, conversions from DC to AC and back to DC can be eliminated.

"Were actually looking at the entire platform, as far as lowering power consumption is concerned," Rattner said. "Weve done a pretty good job in the processors, but now we are looking at power packs, displays ... everything in an effort to make the package more efficient."

Rattner said that improving the efficiency of the power supply alone can bring up to 14 percent power savings.

"Factor that into a data centers overall usage," Rattner said. "Thats pretty significant."

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Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor-in-Chief of eWEEK and responsible for all the publication's coverage. In his 15 years and more than 4,000 articles at eWEEK, he has distinguished himself in reporting...