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3/30/2007
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Small, Fast, Cool: IBM's Optical Chip Set Has It All

Will move data eight times faster than existing optical technology.

IBM last week showed off a prototype of a tiny optical chipset capable of moving data at 160 Gbps, making it possible to download a high-def movie in a second.

The optical transceiver streams data over light pulses sent through plastic tubes. It's eight times faster than existing optical technology, where data travels over electrons through copper wire at rates of 2.5 Gbytes to 5 Gbytes per second.


Less than a fourth the size of a dime

Less than a fourth the size of a dime
IBM expects the chip will be useful in data centers because it will use less energy and generate less heat than current technology. It will be used to move data over distances of less than a meter, making it optimal for rack servers and other data center equipment, says Marc Taubenblatt, senior manager for IBM Research's Optical Communications Group.

As the technology matures, it could find its way into the home. A high-definition movie arriving over cable could be processed and stored in a second, using a set-top box with the optical transceiver; it takes at least 30 minutes with the fastest connections today.

But 160-Gbps optical transport systems are still a long way off, since 40-Gbps networks are only now starting to be deployed, with100-Gbps links next up, says Jason Marcheck, a Current Analysis analyst.

The IBM transceiver initially will be used in routers, switches, and supercomputers, Taubenblatt says. "We're probably four or five years out before it starts showing up in leading-edge products," he says.

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

IBM expects to eventually sell the optical transceiver for $500 to $600--about the same prices as a 10-Gbps chip today. Not a bad deal if you're willing to wait.

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