03:36 PM

IBM Unveils Speedy Optical Chipset

The prototype streams data within computer systems over light pulses eight times faster than optical components in use today, IBM claims.

IBM on Monday announced the manufacture of a tiny optical chipset capable of moving data at speeds of 160GB per second, a feat that would make it possible to down a high-definition movie in a second.

A prototype of the hardware, called an optical transceiver, is scheduled to be introduced Thursday at the 2007 Optical Fiber Conference in Anaheim, Calif. The chipset, which IBM claims is eight times faster than optical components in use today, streams data within computer systems over light pulses sent through plastic tubes, instead of over electrons traveling through copper wire. The latter typically moves information at rates of 2.5GB to 5GB per second.

Besides higher data speeds, the IBM chip, which is less than a quarter the size of a dime, uses less energy, thereby generating less heat. The latter is important in data centers because cooler running machines means less money spent on air conditioning.

The chipset is for moving information over distances of less than a meter, making it optimal for use in rack servers and other equipment found in data centers, Marc Taubenblatt, senior manager for Optical Communications Group at IBM Research, said. As the technology matures, it could also find its way in the home. In a set-top box, for example, a high-definition movie arriving over a cable connection could be processed and stored in a second, versus the minimum of 30 minutes required today by the fastest connections.

But the technology is expected to be used initially in data-directing hardware found in computer networks, such as routers or switches, or in supercomputers. Taubenblatt said. "We're probably four or five years out before it starts showing up in leading-edge products."

As a transceiver, the chipset handles data flowing in and out of a system. As a result the one small device can do the work of 32 components - 16 data senders and 16 receivers - used on today's boards, Fred Zieber, analyst for Pathfinder Research, said. "It certainly increases the density of transmitting information because it packs a lot in a small footprint," Zieber said. "In that respect, it promises to lower cost by five to 10 times." In addition, hardware could become much smaller.

Before the technology could hit the market, however, IBM would have to work with circuit-board manufacturers, which would have to introduce news processes for high-volume production. Also, early generation systems with the optical chipsets would continue to use traditional copper wiring in areas where slower speeds are sufficient. "You're not going to make copper disappear, but we assume all the high-speed channels would be replaced," Taubenblatt said.

Optical chipsets, for example, could be used for communications between rack servers, or processor modules on circuit boards. Copper is likely to remain, at least initially, in communications between the processor and memory, as well as in power delivery, and control signals used in monitoring the health of a system.

IBM believes it could eventually sell its 160GB per second chipset for between $500 and $600, or about the same prices as a 10GB per second chip available today. The goal is to reduce the cost to about the same for technology using copper wires. "That's what we're competing with," Taubenblatt said. "We think we can get down to the same price target for optical."

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