Deal brings optical connections to Sun supercomputer

Sun Microsystems is looking to optical communications to carry out a radical supercomputer redesign.

The server specialist will use technology from Luxtera, a 40-person start-up based in Carlsbad, Calif., to connect chips directly via optical links, the companies plan to announce after 2 days. The alliance will use Luxtera’s silicon ring modulator, which chops up light into photons that can carry data and which can be integrated into silicon chips.

Sun already is employing one novel technology, the proximity communication, in a supercomputer design underwritten by the U.S. Department of Defense. The proximity interconnect lets overlapping chips communicate directly. That feature, combined with Luxtera’s longer-distance optical connections, raises the possibility of building a computer with no electrical wires except the tiny ones within the chips themselves.

“Proximity communication brings high-bandwidth, low-latency data transfer between chips,” said Mike Vildibill, the director of product planning for the Sun supercomputer. The technology partnership means that many more computing components can now be connected, he added. “With Luxtera, we’re extending that incredible bandwidth to the module-to-module and rack-to-rack realms,” he said. Although a Sun computer using the Luxtera links won’t be ready for years, the deal will be seen as a significant step toward the adoption of blending optical and silicon technologies. The companies plan to demonstrate a simple version of their technology at the SC05 supercomputing show in Seattle this week.

Optical networks have been around for decades, but to connect large computers over long distances. Squeezing fast optical systems to connect chips inside a smaller computer is a daunting task, because optical parts can’t be shrunk easily. Optical networks transmit data using photons. The photons have to be created with a laser and then channeled into fiber-optic cables. Then, once received, the data has to be processed.

Typically, computers carry signals over wires using electrons, which are slower than photons and generate far more heat. Combining the cheap techniques for producing silicon and wire chips with fast optical technology has been a dream of Luxtera, but also IBM and Intel. Previous Next Although the first Luxtera products will transfer data at 10 gigabits per second–the top speed of conventional networks today–the technology demonstration at SC05 will be of next-generation technology reaching 40Gbps, said Ashok Krishnamoorthy, a Sun distinguished engineer.

The higher speed is attained by sending four wavelengths–or colors–of light through the same fiber optic cable, a technology known as dense wave division multiplexing (DWDM).

The companies didn’t disclose terms of their deal. But it could be important for Luxtera: Sun will start using the optical interconnect technology in supercomputers, Vildibill said, but then it will “trickle down” into conventional business servers. That’s the bread and butter of Santa Clara, Calif.-based Sun.


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