Thursday, 08 March 2012 18:00

Holy moley! IBM builds Holey Optochip prototype with Terabit data speeds


IBM scientists have come up with a prototype optical chipset, dubbed 'Holey Optochip', that is the first parallel optical transceiver able to transfer one trillion bits per second - one terabit - equivalent to downloading 500 high definition movies per second.

They are presenting a report on their device at the Optical Fiber Communication Conference taking place in Los Angeles (08 March 2012).

IBM's Holey Optochip approach could well be the breakthrough that could transform how data is accessed, shared and used for a the coming era of communications, computing and entertainment.

Well now, that's just a tad faster than my Optus Cable running at a mere 100 Mb/s, and what's more it would fill up all six or seven of my hard disks in a matter of minutes, so where would I store downloads after that brief period? In real life, of course, little me would use up only the tiniest fraction of the chip's traffic, but it follows that new cheaper and more capacious storage technologies must continue to emerge in order to cope with the huge increases in data traffic that such optical chips will deliver.

The Holey Optochip has the ability to move information at blazing speeds - eight times faster than parallel optical components available today, IBM says. The breakthrough could transform how data is accessed, shared and used for a new era of communications, computing and entertainment.

At one terabit per second, IBM's latest advance in optical chip technology provides unprecedented amounts of bandwidth that will be needed before not too long to ship the vast loads of data generated by ever-burgeoning applications like social media, ultra-high resolution digital imaging, 3D streaming videos, a remote sensor on just about everything, large scale astronomy arrays, and robotics.

As IBM puts it it, the raw speed of one Optochip transceiver is equivalent to the bandwidth consumed by 100,000 users at today's typical 10 Mb/s high-speed internet access. In other terms, it would take just around an hour to transfer the entire U.S. Library of Congress web archive through the transceiver.

'Reaching the one trillion bit per second mark with the Holey Optochip marks IBM's latest milestone to develop chip-scale transceivers that can handle the volume of traffic in the era of big data,' said IBM Researcher Clint Schow, part of the team that built the prototype.

'We have been actively pursuing higher levels of integration, power efficiency and performance for all the optical components through packaging and circuit innovations. We aim to improve on the technology for commercialization in the next decade with the collaboration of manufacturing partners.'

As the micrograph below shows, scientists in IBM labs developed the Holey Optochip in a novel way, by fabricating 48 holes through a standard silicon CMOS chip.

The holes allow optical access through the back of the chip to 24 receiver and 24 transmitter channels to produce an ultra-compact, high-performing and power-efficient optical module capable of record setting data transfer rates.

Holey Optochip
Photomicrograph of IBM Holey Optochip. Original chip dimensions are 5.2 mm x 5 .8 mm.

The compactness and capacity of optical communication has become indispensable in the design of large data-handling systems, said IBM.

With that in mind, the Holey Optochip module is constructed with components that are commercially available today, providing the possibility to manufacture at economies of scale.


Consistent with green computing initiatives, the Holey Optochip achieves record speed at a power efficiency (the amount of power required to transmit a bit of information) that is among the best ever reported. The transceiver consumes less than five watts; the power consumed by a 100W light bulb could power 20 transceivers.

This progress in power efficient interconnects is necessary to allow companies who adopt high-performance computing to manage their energy load while performing powerful applications such as analytics, data modeling and forecasting.

By demonstrating unparalleled levels of performance, the Holey Optochip illustrates that high-speed, low-power interconnects are feasible in the near term and optical is the only transmission medium that can stay ahead of the accelerating global demand for broadband.

The future of computing will rely heavily on optical chip technology to facilitate the growth of big data and cloud computing and the drive for next-generation data center applications.

From an Australian perspective, it would seem that the architecture and optical technology being implementated for our National Broadband Network (NBN) fit in perfectly with emerging communication technologies like IBM's Holey Optochip.

If being involved in the IT industry for over forty years has shown me anything about technology developments, there's bound to be some as yet unconceived applications that will surface only after such huge communication bandwidth becomes widely available at the right cost. Of course, within a decade or so such new apps will chew up all of the  speed and capacity gains, meaning that even more advanced devices will have to be be rushed into production (quantum computers, sub-atomic data storage, who knows what).

A final thought is that transmission and data storage error detection and recovery will need to be significantly improved too, so that the vast amounts of data lost during a break of even a few seconds will not be lost forever in the "great bit bucket in the sky."

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Tony Austin

Worked at IBM from 1970, for a quarter century, then founded Asia/Pacific Computer Services to provide IT consulting and software development services (closed company at end of 2013). These says am still involved with IT as an observer and commentator, as well as attempting to understand cosmology, quantum mechanics and whatever else will keep my mind active and fend off deterioration of my grey matter.

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