IBM Silicon Photonics Chip Ramps to 100G bps

Big Blue's CMOS Integrated Nano-Photonics Technology could mean a faster and cheaper way to move vast amounts of data within and between data centers.

silicon photonics

IBM officials last year said the tech giant would spend $3 billion on projects that include researching what will replace traditional silicon chip architectures, including among other technologies silicon photonics.

The company this week announced that engineers have taken a significant step forward in the development of silicon photonics after designing and testing a fully integrated wavelength multiplexed silicon photonics chip, which will lead to the development of 100 gigabit-per-second optical transceivers.

What this means is that the industry will be able to develop faster and more cost-efficient ways to move the rapidly growing amounts of data needed in big data and cloud environments, according to IBM officials. Silicon photonics refers to the use of pulses of light rather than electrical signals over copper wires to move large amounts of data at high speeds and over long distances. Such capabilities are crucial for everything from enterprise servers to supercomputers running big data and cloud applications.

IBM's work will enable optical components and traditional electrical circuits to be integrated side-by-side on a single silicon chip using sub-100-nanometer semiconductor technology, officials said. A new transceiver will be able to share 63 million tweets or 6 million images in a second, while an entire HD digital movie will be downloaded in 2 seconds.

"Making silicon photonics technology ready for widespread commercial use will help the semiconductor industry keep pace with ever-growing demands in computing power driven by big data and cloud services," Arvind Krishna, senior vice president and director of IBM Research, said in a statement. "Just as fiber optics revolutionized the telecommunications industry by speeding up the flow of data—bringing enormous benefits to consumers—we're excited about the potential of replacing electric signals with pulses of light."

IBM isn't the only chip maker pushing silicon photonics. Intel also has been working on the technology for years, and last year announced with Corning, Molex, Tyco Electronics and US Conec plans to roll out new optical cables that would transfer data at speeds much faster than the copper cables typically used in data centers.

By enabling large amounts of data to be moved rapidly within data centers and between cloud services, silicon photonics helps reduce data bottlenecks and improve response times, IBM officials said. Big Blue's silicon photonics chip sends data over four distinct colors of light traveling within an optical fiber, with each color of light becoming a 25G-bps channel. Together, all four offer a total of 100G-bps bandwidth.

With IBM's CMOS Integrated Nano-Photonics Technology, optical and electrical components—as well as features needed for fiber packaging—will be put on a single silicon chip, which can be built on standard fabrication processes, officials said.

A key differentiator for IBM's optical technology is that the optical signals can be transported through a duplex single-mode optical fiber. Most optical interconnects currently being used are based on a technology called vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL), with the optical signals being transported through multimode fiber. However, given the need to increase the speed and distance data can travel between ports, there is growing demand for single-mode fiber to overcome bandwidth and distance limitations, they said.

IBM engineers have demonstrated a reference design for data center interconnects that can transmit data up to 2 kilometers. IBM officials offered more details this week at the 2015 Conference on Lasers and Electro Optics in San Jose, Calif.