Optical Networking Featured Article

New Optical Microchips Could Significantly Reduce Data Center Power Consumption

December 29, 2015

After years of experiments and failed attempts, researchers at a number of universities have developed a prototype for a microprocessor that uses electronic-optical connections in place of wires to transmit data. The project marks a turning point in the data networking world, when service providers and data centers have been shifting toward leaner and more compact methods for processing and handling huge amounts of data.

Researchers from MIT, the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Colorado at Boulder have created the new “light” microprocessors, which consist of more than 70 million transmitters and 850 optical components. Optical fibers, transmitters and receivers work together to send data between the processor chip and a memory chip, resulting in blazing fast transmission rates of up to 300 Gbps per square millimeter. That transfer rate is around 10 to 50 times the rate of existing electronic microprocessors.

The project holds massive implications for the networking infrastructure world, since the microprocessors offer increased speed while consuming the same amount of power as a standard electric unit. As data centers increasingly move toward SDN and NFV to handle large amounts of data while decreasing their footprints and energy consumption, optical microprocessors have the potential to completely transform networking and data processing.

According to Berkeley researcher Chen Sun, around 20 to 30 percent of all energy used by data center servers is consumed transferring data among the processor, memory and networking cards. He believes the new microprocessors have a bright future in the data center, and in May he founded Ayar Labs to commercialize the new designs. Sun believes the company’s products may be ready for market in as little as two years.

The prototype microprocessor created by researchers is already able to run a graphics program to display and manipulate a 3-D image. More work will be required to effectively integrate optical components on the same chip as electronics on a commercial scale, since the manufacturing process can prove tricky.

The prototype chips were manufactured by GlobalFoundries of New York using an older generation of manufacturing fabrication. Upgrading to a more current process will require additional testing and work, according to researchers, as the procedure requires etching off part of the silicon backing on the microchips without compromising their structural integrity.

Edited by Maurice Nagle

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