IBM Gives Networking A 16x Boost

So, 10 gigabit Ethernet too slow for you? How about 160 gigabits?

That’s the latest breakthrough from IBM  researchers, who have come up with an optical networking chip measuring 3mm by 5mm but has 16 times the throughput of today’s networking chips.

Now before you think this will mean more MP3s and dirty videos, think again. First, IBM doesn’t expect it to see the market until 2010, and when it does, it will be for massively parallel supercomputers like its own Blue Gene, the fastest supercomputer in the world.

The problem, as IBM saw it, was that networking had reached the limit of sending electrons over wires. By switching to optical networking, data flows as light pulses, which is faster, cooler and uses considerably less power. The chips are five to 10 times more power efficient than what’s out today, Marc Taubenblatt, senior manager at IBM Research told

“We’ve been aiming at improving high-speed computers. To make ever more powerful computers, we need to connect processing nodes with extreme bandwidth between the nodes. As processors become more capable, they want more bandwidth to feed them and need to be connected with increasing amount of bandwidth, and electrical just isn’t able to do the job any more,” he said.

To keep up with Moore’s Law for microprocessor’s, network chips have to grow 10 to 20 times denser than they are now. As it is, Blue Gene was designed to balance the power of its processors and the speed of the network chips. The new optical network processors will allow IBM to take the leash off its processors and run at greater speed, according to Taubenblatt.

The optical network chips have 16 channels each for transmission and receiption, as opposed to a single channel for transmission and reception. This allows for 160 Gbits per second of both input and output at the same time.

Because the chip is so tiny and runs cool, it can be placed right next to the CPU on the motherboard, thus minimizing the length that data has to travel when it comes over the wire to be processed.

The optical chip is a joint effort between IBM and DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. (Just last week DARPA also made news with the announcement it had teamed up with Raytheon on development of the MONARCH chip).

Once it moves beyond the back plane of Blue Gene, IBM foresees a time when it could have great application in the home, where home servers are becoming more popular and more data is flying around on wired and wireless networks.

Unfortunately, it will be a while. While the technology exists today and IBM was able to put it together in the lab, the manufacturing capability doesn’t exist, said Taubenblatt. It will take a while to be able to make the chip and then for networking manufacturers to begin making their own chips. IBM doesn’t expect to use it in its own products until 2010.

Fred Zeiber, principal with Pathfinder Research, told that networking has already reached its limits in some ways due to the single input/output channel, and that this is no small breakthrough.

“The engineering to put this all together into something practical and small is amazing. Being able to use one chip to do 16 in and 16 out is something that’s been extremely difficult to do,” said Zeiber. “You get crosstalk and other problems. That’s a hell of a lot of stuff going in and out of the chip at one time.”

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