Sun aims lasers to boost computer performance

Sun gets DARPA funding to develop chips that communicate using lasers, while reducing power consumption of supercomputers

In an attempt to improve computer performance, Sun Microsystems is working on technology to let chips communicate using lasers instead of electricity, in what would be a break from conventional computer design.

The company on Monday received a US$44 million contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to boost computational performance by using lasers for chips to communicate over silicon optics and to reduce power consumption by placing chips close to each other, Sun said.

Usually chips are soldered and physically unattached, but with the research, Sun is trying to connect the chips densely in a grid, said Ron Ho, a distinguished engineer at Sun. At close proximity, lasers provide better bandwidth for chips to communicate, which can boost overall system performance. The performance increase could be at up to terabits per second, Ho said.

The research will densely pack hundreds of cores in what Sun calls a "macrochip." This research's findings could help data centers reduce power consumption and provide more efficient computational cycles for supercomputers in the high-performance computing space. It could help push supercomputing capabilities in areas like weather research and oil exploration.

The grid placement of chips and lower power requirement of optical networking should also reduce operational and manufacturing costs for supercomputers, Ho said.

Sun won't bring out supercomputers or servers based on the research soon, though the technology will start appearing in servers in about three to four years, Ho said.

Many companies are involved in silicon nanophotonics research, which enables high-bandwidth communication networks between chips with thousands of cores to enable computational and power efficiency. Research has been going on for years, but little attention has been given to bringing down power consumption and ownership costs, Ho said. Sun is trying to push research in the area, Ho said.

IBM is looking to replace wires on a chip with pulses of light on tiny optical fibers for quicker and more power-efficient data transfers between cores on a chip. The technology transfers data up to a distance of a few centimeters, about 100 times faster than wires, and consumes one-tenth as much power. NEC is also working on technology to enable optical data transmission between chips. DARPA is also looking to fund further research efforts in the space.

Sun's research partners for the project include silicon photonics companies like Kotura and Luxtera, and universities including Stanford University and the University of California at San Diego.

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