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Sun Gets Pentagon Contract To Research Laser-Connected Chips

Sun is working on a way to use laser beams instead of wires to connect chips in supercomputers, making them faster, more energy efficient, and more compact.

Sun Microsystems on Monday said it has received nearly $44.3 million in research funding to investigate the use of laser beam to move data between microprocessors, thereby dramatically improving the speed that data moves between the hundreds or thousands of chips in today's supercomputers.

The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has handed Sun the first installment of $8.1 million to begin the project, which builds on research done under DARPA's High Productivity Computing Systems program. Sun's partners are Stanford and the University of California, San Diego, and two silicon photonics firms, Luxtera and Kotura, The New York Times reported. Sun's bid won over teams led by IBM, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and an Intel/Hewlett-Packard group.

Sun hopes to find a way to replace with laser beams the wires used to connect chips in a supercomputer. Data-carrying light is many times faster than wires, which also have the additional problems of generating electrical current and heat. In developing laser-connected chips, Sun also will have to prove a viable manufacturing process.

Today's chips are made on large silicon wafers, where the circuitry of each processor is etched. The wafer is then cut up into individual fingernail-size chips. Processors made in this way require wired interconnects.

To replace wires with light, Sun plans to research the building of what it calls "macrochips," which are long arrays of chips that use laser beams for communications. These macrochips would replace the hundreds or thousands of individual chips in today's supercomputers, which would become faster, more energy efficient, and more compact as a result.

"Optical communications could be a truly game-changing technology -- an elegant way to continue impressive performance gains while completely changing the economics of large-scale silicon production," Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer and executive VP of research and development for Sun, said in a statement.

The use of light in chip interconnects is part of a field of science called silicon photonics. The technology promises to extend Moore's Law, which states that the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years. Economic limits on the global financial investment in semiconductors has started to slow down the prediction of Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, Sun said. Boosting computer performance by gathering hundreds or thousands of cores on a macrochip could reap an unconstrained continuation of Moore's Law.

Advancements in supercomputing are expected to be useful to a broad class of companies and organizations, including those involved in energy exploration, biotechnology, and weather modeling.

Other chipmakers are also heavily investing in silicon photonics. Intel is working on chips with built-in lasers that can deliver communications speed of 40 Gbps and more. The company last July demonstrated an important breakthrough in the form of the first working 40G silicon-laser modulator.

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