IBM’s silicon photonics technology ready to speed up Big Data applications

2 min read

IBM has developed technology that will enable silicon chips to use pulses of light instead of electrical signals over wires to move data rapidly over longer distances. 

IBM engineers have designed and tested a fully integrated wavelength multiplexed silicon photonics chip, which will soon allow manufacturing of 100Gb/s optical transceivers.

This will allow datacentres to offer greater data rates and bandwidth for cloud computing and Big Data applications.

IBM engineers have designed and tested a fully integrated wavelength multiplexed silicon photonics chip, which will soon allow manufacturing of 100Gb/s optical transceivers
IBM engineers have designed and tested a fully integrated wavelength multiplexed silicon photonics chip, which will soon allow manufacturing of 100Gb/s optical transceivers

“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,” senior vice president and director of IBM Research Arvind Krishna said in a statement.

“Just as fibre optics revolutionised 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.

“This technology is designed to make future computing systems faster and more energy efficient, while enabling customers to capture insights from Big Data in real time.”  

Silicon photonics uses tiny optical components to send light pulses to transfer large volumes of data at very high speed between computer chips in servers, large datacentres and supercomputers, overcoming the limitations of congested data traffic and high-cost traditional interconnects.

IBM’s technology allows the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using sub-100nm semiconductor technology.

Its silicon photonics chips use four distinct colours of light travelling within an optical fibre, rather than traditional copper wiring, to transmit data in and around a computing system.

In just one second, this new transceiver is estimated to be capable of digitally sharing 63 million tweets or six million images, or downloading an entire high-definition digital movie in two seconds.

Silicon photonics reduces data bottlenecks inside systems and between computing components, improving response times and delivering faster insights from Big Data.

Manufacturing makes use of standard fabrication processes at a silicon chip foundry, making the technology ready for commercialisation.

Silicon photonics technology leverages the properties of optical communications, including the transmission of high-speed data over kilometre-scale distances, and the ability to overlay multiple colours of light within a single optical fibre to multiply the data volume carried, while maintaining low power consumption.

Most optical interconnect solutions employed within datacentres today are based on vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL) technology, where the optical signals are transported via multimode optical fibre.

Demands for increased distance and data rate between ports are driving the development of single-mode optical interconnect technologies, which can overcome the bandwidth-distance limitations inherent to multimode VCSEL links.

IBM said its CMOS integrated nano-photonics technology provides an economical solution to extend the reach and data rates of optical links.

IBM engineers in New York and Zurich, Switzerland and the IBM Systems Unit have demonstrated a reference design targeting datacentre interconnects with a range up to 2km.

This chip demonstrates transmission and reception of high-speed data using four laser ‘colours’, each operating as an independent 25Gb/s optical channel.

Within a full transceiver design, these four channels can be wavelength multiplexed on-chip to provide 100Gb/s aggregate bandwidth over a duplex single-mode fibre. 

Silicon photonics is among the efforts of IBM's $3 billion investment to push the limits of chip technology to meet the emerging demands of cloud and Big Data systems
Silicon photonics is among the efforts of IBM’s $3 billion investment to push the limits of chip technology to meet the emerging demands of cloud and Big Data systems