IBM’s Silicon Nanophotonics: The Answer to Big Data Traffic Jams


IBM has announced a major breakthrough with its silicon nanophotonics research, developing a system for transferring data using light instead of electronic signals, which could have massive ramifications for the future of computing.

Silicon nanophotonics refers to the integration of different optical components side by side with electrical circuits on single silicon chips using sub-100nm semiconductor technology, explains IBM.

The company says that silicon nanophotonics differs from traditional electronic circuitry in that it uses light pulses to deliver large volumes of data between chips in computer servers at extremely rapid speeds — something that should significantly alleviate the problems of congested data traffic that are posed by traditional technology. In essence, silicon nanophotonics are akin to a ‘super highway’ for data.

John E. Kelly, IBM’s senior vice president, made the following announcement:

 “This technology breakthrough is a result of more than a decade of pioneering research at IBM. This allows us to move silicon nanophotonics technology into a real-world manufacturing environment that will have impact across a range of applications.”

The breakthrough is significant because many enterprises are just beginning to embrace big data, and will require considerable processing and analysis systems to do so effectively.  Silicon nanophotonics could potentially provide the answer to many of the challenges that big data poses, as it would allow the various components of these systems to be interconnected, so that data can be transferred much more readily as pulses of light through optical fibers.

IBM admitted that it had spent close to ten years in developing its silicon nanophotonics technology, but says that it’s finally ready to begin commercial development and help the computer industry to keep up with the ever-increasing demands for more computing power and better chip performance.

According to IBM, its nanophotonics transceivers have demonstrated data transfer rates that exceed 25 Gbps per channel, while the technology offers even better performance by utilizing compact on-chip wavelength-division multiplexing devices to feed multiple optical data streams into a single fiber optic cable. This ability, says IBM, could one day lead to optical communications that are capable of transferring whole terabytes of data between distant servers.

Speed and performance are not the only advantages of silicon nanophotonics, for the technology should also help to reduce the expensive cost of traditional interconnects. IBM says that it’s now able to manufacture single-chip optical transceivers in a standard CMOS foundry, as opposed to the traditional method of assembling them from multiple parts using compound semiconductor technology, a significantly more expensive process.

IBM said that it would give a presentation on the new technology at the IEEE International Electron Devices Meeting (IEDM) later this month.