IBM unveils new chip; Heats up supercomputer battle

Wednesday, 8 December 2010 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

IBM has unveiled a new technology that uses pulses of light instead of electrical signals to transfer data between chips that will bolster its plans to create an Exaflop supercomputer, capable of one million trillion calculations per second.

Recently crowned fastest supercomputer in the world, the Chinese Tianhe-1A, clocks in at 2.57 petaflops. A petaflop is equivalent to thousand trillion operations per second.

The new chip technology evolved by IBM is called CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics. The new technology integrates optical and electrical devices on the same silicon chip, thus translating electric signals into photons, thus speeding communication between chips, which is faster than transferring data through embedded copper wires.

The major issue that slowed optical communication was the delay caused in converting electrical signals into optical signals. So putting both optical and electrical devices on the same chip means the signals can be converted faster.

Dr. T.C. Chen, Vice President, Science and Technology, IBM Research, said, “With optical communications embedded into the processor chips, the prospect of building power-efficient computer systems with performance at the Exaflop level is one step closer to reality.”

In the breakthrough technology, IBM uses the standard CMOS — complementary metal oxide semiconductor — chip manufacturing technique. Thus, by adding “a few more processing modules to a standard CMOS fabrication flow” IBM is able to integrate optical devices such as modulators, germanium photodetectors and ultra-compact wavelength-division multiplexers with analog and digital CMOS chips.

The integrated chip can now be crafted in a standard CMOS foundry rather than developing CMOS chip and the optical chip separately and then assembling them together. Embedding optical communication devices on the chip reduces the power consumption.

Also, IBM has been able to plant both optical and electrical devices with a single transreceiver in a space that is 10 times smaller than achieved by others. It has further plans to create single chip transreceivers with a capacity to transfer over one terabits per second on a space of four millimeters square.

The new development also reveals as to why IBM has not joined others in using GPU as accelerators, as used by Tianhe-1A. IBM is pitching hopes in its new technology to generate speed using optical transfer of data.

The development of the technology has taken IBM a decade and was unveiled at a conference on semiconductors in Tokyo.