Sun Gets $44 Million to Fund Chip Research

With a grant from DARPA, Sun will expand its efforts to connect chips using lasers.

Sun Microsystems is getting a $44.3 million boost from the government to develop a new way to connect microprocessors together using lasers instead of traditional copper wire.

The company and the U.S. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the research section of the Department of Defense, announced the funding March 24. The money will pay for more than five years of research within Sun's Microelectronics and Laboratories divisions.

With the new round of funding, Sun researchers plan to delve deeper into the area of silicon photonics, an emerging field of chip development that looks to replace traditional copper wiring with tiny laser beams that will connect one processor to another. The use of light to link processing cores holds the promise of increasing bandwidth by allowing data to travel much faster across greater distances.

The use of lasers could also reduce the amount of heat a processor generates and the amount of energy it consumes, which will allow companies like Sun, Intel, IBM and others to place more processing cores on a single piece of silicon. The type of technology is seen as a way of extending Moore's Law, the observation developed by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore that compute power doubles every two years.

Although several major IT companies and a number of universities and other research firms are researching silicon photonics, it's not clear when the technology will be ready for commercial use.

The concept that Sun and DARPA researchers are developing is called a "macrochip," which will combine optical signaling with chip-to-chip I/O technology. The result, according to Sun, is a series of small, inexpensive chips that are connected and communicate by using tiny lasers. These small chips function as a single microprocessor that acts much like a supercomputer.

By eliminating the soldered wire connections, the macrochip will cost less than trying to build the chip-to-chip interconnect with traditional wires, while increasing the bandwidth and using less power.

Sun is not alone in moving toward this model.

On March 17, IBM researchers published a paper that describes a silicon broadband switch that will route optical signs from one processing core to another. This latest development builds on a silicon modulator that converts electronic signals into light beams.

Intel also has an extensive program to develop silicon photonics.

The Sun bid with DARPA beat out several competing proposals from Intel, IBM, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Hewlett-Packard, according to The New York Times, which first reported the story.