A US startup expects to ship components in 2006 built using standard chip manufacturing techniques designed to allow chip makers, networking companies and server vendors to improve performance using optical interconnects.
Luxtera unveiled an optical modulator on Monday as part of its CMOS Photonics technology. The modulator was designed by Luxtera and built by Freescale Semiconductor Inc. with CMOS (complementary metal oxide semiconductor) technology, a widely used chip manufacturing technique.
The optical modulator is one piece of a collection of Luxtera technologies that will enable chips to exchange information at up to 10G bps (bits per second), said Alex Dickinson, co-founder and chief executive officer of Luxtera. Sun Microsystems is testing Luxtera's technology in its labs in hopes of building inexpensive optical interconnects within servers, he said.
Most networking devices, servers and PCs use electricity carried over copper wires to move data around a system or between two systems. However, toward the end of the decade, shrinking transistors and increased power consumption will make it impossible to rely solely on electricity as the conduit for high-speed data, according to analysts and chip vendors.
Electrical interconnects have evolved beyond what many computer industry professionals had expected 15 years ago, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst with Mercury Research. The industry will continue to squeeze as much usefulness as possible out of electrical interconnect technology, as seen with the switch from single-ended signaling to differential signaling, but optical components show a lot of promise as a future interconnect technology, he said.
Optical networking is currently used in telecommunications and other long-haul networks because of the high bandwidth and low power characteristics of the technology. But in order to recognize data carried over optical fiber, standard chips require a module that transforms optical signals to electrical signals. Those modules are generally built out of expensive materials, and are not a cost-effective technology for the high volumes of chips sold in network switches or servers.
Luxtera believes it can solve the cost problem by building optical modulators out of silicon using the proven manufacturing technologies that churn out the world's semiconductors, Dickinson said. These components will allow chips within servers or networking devices to send 10G bps signals to other chips using optical technology, a significant boost in performance from the 1G bps networking that is today's standard.
Eventually, the chip industry wants to use optical technology to move data around points within a single chip. Intel recently announced that it had built a laser from silicon components that is capable of generating the light waves needed to carry data within chips.
Intel doesn't expect to have products ready before the end of the decade, while Luxtera will begin producing sample components in the second quarter of 2006, Dickinson said. Luxtera expects to be in full production by the end of 2006 or the beginning of 2007, he said.