Sun researching laser-powered chips

Vendor says perfrormance will improve

In an attempt to improve computer performance, Sun Microsystems is working on technology to let chips communicate using lasers instead of electricity.

Sun has been granted a US$44 million (NZ$55 million) contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to boost computational performance by using lasers for chips to communicate over silicon optics and to reduce power consumption by placing chips close to each other.

Usually, chips are soldered and physically unattached, but in this project, Sun is trying to connect the chips densely in a grid, says Ron Ho, an engineer at Sun. At close proximity, lasers provide better bandwidth for chips to communicate, which can boost overall system performance. The performance increase could be at up to terabits per second, Ho says.

The research will densely pack hundreds of cores in what Sun calls a "macrochip". The research's findings could help datacentres reduce power consumption and provide more efficient computational cycles for supercomputers in the high-performance computing space. It could help push supercomputing capabilities in areas such as weather research and oil exploration.

The grid placement of chips and lower power requirement of optical networking should also reduce operational and manufacturing costs for supercomputers, Ho says.

The technology will start appearing in servers in about three to four years, he says.

Many companies are involved in silicon nanophotonics research, which enables high-bandwidth communication networks between chips with thousands of cores to enable computational and power efficiency. Research has been going on for years, but little attention has been given to bringing down power consumption and ownership costs, Ho says. Sun is trying to push research in the area, he says.

IBM is looking to replace wires on a chip with pulses of light on tiny optical fibres for quicker and more power-efficient data transfers between cores on a chip. The technology transfers data up to a distance of a few centimetres, about 100 times faster than wires, and consumes 10% as much power. NEC is also working on technology to enable optical data transmission between chips. DARPA is also looking to fund further research efforts in the space.

Sun's research partners for the project include silicon photonics companies such as Kotura and Luxtera, and universities including Stanford University and the University of California at San Diego.

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