Silicon Photonics: Computing Reimagined?

Arthur Cole
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Study Finds Network Admins Juggling Multiple Initiatives

Is another technology revolution brewing under the surface?

The enterprise is preoccupied with Big Data, cloud computing and converged infrastructure at the moment, but it seems more is going on in the inner workings of hardware these days that could kick the entire computing industry into even higher gear.

A case in point is silicon photonics. By replacing the copper interconnects with optical lasers, researchers are already looking at substantial improvements in data processing and communications across a wide range of applications. And commercial development is a lot closer than many people realize. According to Research and Markets, the SiPh market is poised to grow from today’s paltry $25 million to more than $700 million by 2024, nearly 40 percent annual growth. Look for 2018 to be a big year for optical solutions, particularly in the hyperscale data centers of Google, Facebook and other web-facing giants.

What kind of data transfer speeds are we talking about? According to Intel’s lead SiPh developer, Dr. Mario Paniccia, 50 Gbps is a reasonable starting point, with rates as high as 1 Tbps not out of the question. And the best part is that the technology might end up costing less than copper over the life of the device because the heat generated in the optical realm is so much less, which requires less cooling. A high-end HPC device like the Tianhe-2, for example, draws about 17 MW for processing, plus another 7 MW just to keep cool. Not only will the absence of copper reduce heat, but it will also allow cool air to flow over more of the chip’s surface.

Intel’s first iteration of SiPh is likely to arrive in the form of the Omni Scale fabric, intended for HPC environments as a “non-InfiniBand” solution. The company hasn’t said much about Omni Scale to date, other than that it is likely to combine various technologies from Cray and QLogic, relying on the latter’s True Scale platform to provide backward compatibility for legacy InfiniBand deployments. Initial SiPh support will likely come in the form of various cables and connectors designed to provide high-speed node-to-node communications.

Top data center systems developers are also turning toward SiPh for their next-generation platforms. HP recently took the wraps off its new box simply called “The Machine,” which features SiPh along with a host of other advanced solutions to meet the massive data loads that are already starting to over-burden today’s technology. The company says its lasers can shunt 160 petabytes in about 250 nanoseconds using 80 times less energy than copper. The system is still in development, but HP execs say a production model could be out by, again, 2018.

The basic architecture of computing and networking has been around for so long that it’s easy to forget that the standard approach to processing, storage and communications is not the only way it can be done. New data challenges have always fueled new technologies, and some of these have even risen to the level of paradigm-shifting. But now that the Internet of Things and hyperscale infrastructure is upon us, it’s time to take a hard look at some of the underpinnings of the digital ecosystem.

It turns out that a lot can still be improved upon.

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