IBM says chip 'breakthrough' will shrink supercomputers

Connecting multiple chip cores with light pulses could produce supercomputers the size of a laptop

By replacing the electrical wiring that now connects multiple cores inside a microprocessor with pulses of light, IBM is looking to shrink supercomputers down to the size of a laptop by the year 2020.

In an announcement today of what it called a "breakthrough" in chip design, IBM said that using optical communication between the cores would dramatically cut a processor's energy needs and the heat it emits. The new chips would require the energy needed to power alight bulb, while today's supercomputers need enough energy to power hundreds of homes, the company noted.

By reducing energy consumption and heat emission, the optical connections would enable today's dual-core and quad-core chips to grow exponentially into hundreds or thousands of cores in a single chip, according to Will Green, an IBM research scientist, who has been working on the company's silicon photonics project for the past five years.

That means a single chip would have the computing power of a supercomputer that's now powerful enough to make it onto the Top 500 List.

"That kind of technology would allow the scaling of multicore architectures to hit hundreds or thousands of cores on a chip," said Green. "Without this optical breakthrough, it's difficult to envision how you would achieve that number of cores on a chip. You're talking about a large power savings and you're talking about being able to make that a mobile device. You'd be able to move it about, maybe in the form of a laptop. That's something we're aiming toward. That's the vision we have for 10 to 12 years out."

Green explained that the new technology -- known as a silicon Mach-Zehnder electro-optic modulator -- converts electrical signals into pulses of light. The modulator is 100 to 1,000 times smaller than other similar modulators, enabling many of the devices to work inside a chip and replace the electrical wiring. 

While reducing energy and heat emissions, the optical modulators also would speed communications between the cores. According to IBM, using light instead of wires to send information between the cores can be 100 times faster and use 10 times less power than wires.

"Work is under way within IBM and in the industry to pack many more computing cores on a single chip, but today's on-chip communications technology would overheat and be far too slow to handle that increase in workload," said T.C. Chen, a vice president at IBM Research. "What we have done is a significant step toward building a vastly smaller and more power-efficient way to connect those cores in a way that nobody has done before."

IBM has some company in its efforts to shrink supercomputers down from the size of a basketball court to the size of a laptop that someone could sling into a bag and walk through an airport with.

This past October, Michael Zaiser, a professor and researcher at the University of Edinburgh School of Engineering and Electronics, said supercomputers small enough to fit into the palm of your hand are only 10 or 15 years away. The nanotech researcher explained that nanowires -- 1,000 times thinner than a human hair -- will someday go into PCs, laptops, cell phones or even supercomputers. And the smaller the wires, the smaller the chip can be.

Shrinking down the microprocessors is a big step toward shrinking down computers.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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