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Fibres helping to tackle big data

At the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting in Washington DC in December, IBM’s Dr Solomon Assefa presented a major advance in the ability to use light instead of electrical signals to transmit data for computing. The breakthrough technology, called ‘silicon nanophotonics’ is able to transport information via pulses of light through optical fibres in order to deal with the growing volumes of data being created and transmitted over enterprise networks.

Due to an explosion of new applications and services, businesses are entering a new era of computing that requires systems to process huge volumes of information known as big data. Silicon nanophotonics provides answers to big data challenges by allowing the integration of different optical components side-by-side with electrical circuits on a single silicon chip using, for the first time, sub-100nm semiconductor technology. This seamlessly connects various parts of large systems, whether a few centimetres or a few kilometres apart from each other, and enables terabytes of data to be transmitted via pulses of light through optical fibres.

The new technology provides a super highway for large volumes of data to move at rapid speeds between computer chips in servers, large datacenters, and supercomputers, thus alleviating the limitations of congested data traffic and high-cost traditional interconnects.

Building on its initial proof of concept in 2010, IBM has solved the key challenges of transferring the silicon nanophotonics technology into the commercial foundry. By adding a few processing modules into a high-performance 90nm complementary metal–oxide–semiconductor (CMOS) fabrication line, a variety of silicon nanophotonics components such as wavelength division multiplexers (WDM), modulators and detectors are integrated side-by-side with a CMOS electrical circuitry. As a result, single-chip optical communications transceivers can be manufactured in a conventional semiconductor foundry, providing significant cost reduction over traditional approaches. 

IBM’s CMOS nanophotonics technology is capable of feeding a number of parallel optical data streams into a single fibre by utilising compact on-chip wavelength-division multiplexing devices. The ability to multiplex large data streams at high data rates will allow future scaling of optical communications capable of delivering terabytes of data between distant parts of computer systems. 

‘This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM,’ said Dr John E Kelly, senior vice president and director of IBM Research. ‘This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications.’

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