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US boffins talk up photonic computing revolution

Opens the door for super fast computers
Fri Feb 24 2012, 14:53

US BOFFINS have developed a process to build photonic interconnect components on silicon substrates, paving the way for next generation super-fast computers.

HP Labs, the central research lab for Hewlett Packard (HP) in Palo Alto, California is studying how this shift to light-based interconnects might revolutionise the way computers are built.

Researchers at the company have reported that fabricating photonic components on silicon - such as modulators, detectors, waveguides, and filters - has finally been realised, and these optical interconnect structures show great potential for both intrachip and interchip applications.

"This is an exciting time because it's a big transition for the industry," says Moray McLaren, a researcher in HP Labs' Exascale Computing Lab focused on inventing computer fabrics for next-generation IT solutions using a cross-layer, interdisciplinary approach.

"In many respects, it's one of the inevitable forces of technology that's been much-heralded for 10 years. There's finally industry-wide agreement that it will happen. We've reached the point where we can say that it's an essential technology-we'll need to have optical interconnects to deliver these machines in the 2017-2019 timeframe."

But the question remains on how these optical technologies will change the way computers are built.

One view is that photonic interconnects are simply "smarter wire", according to McLaren. "Today's computers are connected with copper cable up to a certain distance, currently about eight metres, and as data rates continue to increase, this threshold will drop to less than a metre. And once the threshold is exceeded, the interconnect transitions from copper to optics."

The other standpoint argues that the characteristics and capabilities of optical communication are sufficiently different than the way things are done electronically that we need to entirely rethink how to build computers.

So it's back to the drawing board then, and photonics will be a key discussion area for researchers at the upcoming Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC). µ


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