March 29, 2008

Sun to Connect Processors via Lasers

According to a New York Times report, Sun Microsystems has announced receiving a $44-million contract from the Pentagon to explore the possibility of replacing the wires between computer chips with laser beams.

Indeed, Sun is believed to have found a way to connect computer chips via laser beams instead of wires so as to make them communicate at much higher speeds -- paving the way for the next wave of computers that are more compact, faster, and more energy-efficient. The technology that Sun has chanced upon is part of a Computer Science discipline called 'Silicon Photonics', and promises to do away with that most difficult obstacle facing today's computer designers; namely rapid movement of information to solve problems that require hundreds and thousands of processors. However, Sun's nouveau approach has much to do with its ability to very accurately align processors so as to allow transmission of light beams across their surfaces in ultra-narrow channels known as 'wave guides'. Effectively, each chip will be able to communicate with every other chip in the array through a laser beam that will carry tens billions of bits of data per second.

Researchers at Sun are calling their new system "macrochip", and though it's prone to a 50 percent failure rate -- reportedly by their own admission -- in the event it can be proved both technically feasible and commercially possible, Sun claims that would lead to the creation of much better machines that are about a thousand times faster than the computers of today.

Sun's partners on the project are Stanford and the University of California, San Diego, as also two 'Silicon Photonics' companies, Luxtera and Kotura. The five-year project is being financed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and builds on an earlier Sun project that was intended to interconnect chips electrically by stacking them edge-to-edge.



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