15 May 2008

Optical communications goes nano -- HP announces practical interconnect tech (and an ecosystem for it to grow in)

Pretty much everyone in developed countries appreciates the escalating appetite for bandwidth of our indispensible digital companions. Phil Edholm of Nortel posted an intriguing graphic recently which shows both historic and projected per-user bandwidth consumption and compares these to other noted growth laws:

...Note the ramp-ups corresponding to adoption of new applications and media such as personal audio (MP3s) and streaming video. (And let's not forget VOIP. And I would personally add escalating adoption of desktop virtual machines to the mix, though few analysts seem to recognize that as a trend yet.) Edholm is the gentleman who exposited bandwidth's equivalent to the semiconductor industry's Moore's Law, reducing its exponentiation to sensible (and highly predictable) form:

The skyrocketing consumption of Internet bits is easy enough to appreciate. But also ponder what this means for the internal communications bandwidth of the devices themselves. Horsing all that data around requires not only better connectivity and more storage and processing power, but also higher internal communications throughput and more flexible and complex routing. But at the same time, chips are getting smaller and denser, buses grow wider, and clock-rates increase (for both performance and marketing reasons).

The physics of these realities quickly collide. Signal integrity, dielectric losses, routing skew, cross-talk, power consumption... nightmares pile on nightmares for circuit engineers trying to move data where it needs to be and when, inside chips and between them, and between the boards they live on. How to meet tomorrow's needs?

One way would be to use optical interconnects, the workhorse of long-haul, high-volume telecommunications. But costs have blocked that. A few short years ago, EDN noted:

...optical interconnects are likely to displace copper only in buses and networks that route signals over distances greater than tens of feet. The reasons are economic. SI experts indicate that the cost of implementing shorter interconnects with optics is at least an order of magnitude greater than that of using copper and the silicon devices that drive it. In fact, typical optical-to-copper cost ratios are probably closer to 100-to-1. Indeed, one SI manager, despite forecasting its decline, suggests that the cost ratio might currently be as high as 10,000-to-1.
O, ye of little faith. That sets the stage nicely for the latest news from HP Labs, which is just rocking with innovations lately. As reported in EE Times:

Using silicon photonics to connect blades, boards, chips and eventually cores on the same chip has become a strategic goal for Hewlett Packard... By harnessing its expertise in nanoimprint lithography to fashion low-cost, high-speed silicon photonic devices, HP said it hopes to seed the fledgling community of optical interconnect component makers. Rather than doing it all, HP is seeking partners with other silicon photonic pioneers in hopes of developing its first optical interconnect technology in products by 2009.

Most reportage skips right over that important point. So let's pause for a moment and relate this back to a topic of some earlier posts (in particular this one) regarding the panel discussion on "Breakthrough Innovation" I was honored to join last summer. Here we have a team of galactic-class innovators... and they're not locking it up. Instead, they're building a community to make more breakthroughs happen faster. HP's CTO Terry Morris even uses one of my favorite innovation-related words, see if you can pick it out:

"Our business strategy is to pull parters along and build a community that benefits from the intellectual property at HP Labs--a community that provides the ecosystem to enable the delivery of photonic interconnects in volume."
Exactly on-target. Morris is channeling my co-panelists Patricia Seybold and Andrew Hargadon. They've studied innovation and have shown this is how breakthroughs are nurtured in savvy organizations.

EE Times continues:

HP described its laboratory demonstrations of the components needed for creating optical interconnects that handle communication among systems and boards... Its free-space optical connection provided a 240 Gbit/s optical connection that beamed information through the air between boards. Researcher also described a MEMS micro-lens scanner fabricated from silicon-on-insulator that focuses between-board lasers.
(Digression: That brings up topic dear to mine own heart, as photonic alignment automation is my home field, with a couple patents, a current emphasis on highly optimized microrobotic alignment and production assembly equipment, and a very enjoyable collaboration with some brilliant researchers at MIT who have developed a six-degree-of-freedom silicon MEMs nanopositioner ideal for embedded micro-optical tasks (see #6466-24 at the link, also this). Exciting work continues there; meanwhile we were able to implement both Hyperbit (allowing smaller/cheaper DACs to be used) and Convolve, Inc.'s always-amazing Input Shaping(R) technology (to eliminate motion-generated vibration without the complexity of a closed-loop implementation). The six-DOF control was implemented in an FPGA using LabVIEW and updated all six axes simultaneously at 10kHz. Here are some micro-scale laser vibrometry videos on YouTube (metrology courtesy of Polytec) which show the impact of what we accomplished, showing a square-wave input to the speck-sized MEMS hexapod, with metrology in the velocity domain: before and after-- the improvement in resolution, controllability and stability is dramatic. The MIT MicroHexFlex MEMS nanopositioner is a marvelous platform for embedded micro-optical pointing and coupling optimization.)
Back to HP's insightful plans. Another ingredient of Hargadon's observations of the innovation process is combinatorial leveraging of technologies from other fields. In this case, one example is the venerable concept of embossing. That's basically what nanoimprint lithography is all about. And it's key to burying the cost issues of small-scale photonic interconnects once and for all:

Instead of using telecommunications-type photonics--which is designed for 300 meter ranges--HP said it wants to craft a family of low-power signaling technologies that use silicon nanoimprint lithography to fashion low-cost alternatives for optical communnications.

Fascinating. And one of the more impressive aspects of HP's news is the breadth and depth of their nanoimprint-based toolkit. The demonstrations included:
...cheap plastic waveguides, micro-lenses and beamsplitters [allowing demonstration of] a 10-bit-wide optical data bus that used just 1 milliwatt of laser power to interconnect eight different modules at 10 Gbit/s/channel for an aggregate bandwidth of over 250 Gbit/s. "What we are working toward now are novel optical connections, such as board-to-board connections using a photonic bus that enables us to replace an 80-watt chip that performs the electronic switching function today with a molded piece of plastic," said Morris [including] a silicon ring resonator that it hopes to fashion with imprint lithography. "HP Labs has already demonstrated one of the world's smallest and lowest power silicon ring resonators. Now we want to show how to do it with nanoimprint lithography because a dense pattern that takes 60 hours to create with e-beam lithography could take only 30 minutes for nanoimprint lithography," Morris claimed.

And unlike many nanotechnologies, this development seems well-grounded and commercializable in the near term:

HP contends that its photonic interconnects are poised for commercialization, which will begin immediately along with business partners. In addition to HP's university partners, over a dozen companies attended the HP forum, including Avago, Corning, Intel and Lightwire. The goal is to develop "the infrastructure to get photonic interconnects to market," said Morris. "We already have photonic waveguides that can operate at up to terahertz ranges. Now we want to make sure that our solutions work in real computing environments," said Morris.

The potential impact is sweeping in scope, encompassing "...all communications in the range of 100 nanometers on a chip all the way up to 100 meters between systems." You'll see this in both existing and new applications:

"In the near term we want to connect boards and blades with photonic interconnects. In the long-term we want to build on-chip photonic connections which we think will break the core-to-memory bottleneck... Instead of going through a switch and out onto a congested bus then back through the switch, we plan on adding inexpensive direct connections that add a dimension of connectivity not possible today," said Morris. "For instance, we could add photonic connections between blades for true 3D meshes and toroids, while remaining within the confines of existing board infrastructures."

With its big memristor news of a few days ago, that's HP's second development in a week enabling radically new computing architectures with dramatic cost and power savings. Let's hope they keep it up.

Full disclosure: I'm an HP shareholder. And after I read about this development, I bought more.


Scott Jordan said...

HP Labs' Jamie Beckett has linked to my commentary on the Photonic Interconnect Forum on her blog, in a post accurately entitled, "Photonics to the rescue". Many thanks!

Anonymous said...

I suggest taking look at Chiral Photonics' www.chiralphotonics.com tapered coupler as a start. Displacing lens fiber, free space interconnects is a start for this innovative, stealthy company. You make great point, demand for microrobotic photonic assembly capabilities. Sure, it is there, in spots but being 20+ year industry veteran I assure you it is not there as long as there are eager assembly operators outside of North America and Europe. Chiral Photonics founding core competency is the genius of its simplicity - - they invented a calibrated factory floor full of automated photonic device micro robotic equipment enabling them to replicate great results over and over and over. They use well known, well understood fiber optic fiber to route, process and guide light light rather than use of active material development process, such as CMOS or planar, they use fiber optic fiber. (Read: low operating cost, always!!!) The interconnects they produce enable you to keep the planar or CMOS chip smaller, while saving a litho layer since you do not need to do mode field conditioning on chip, you can fire light in and out through their 1 um butt coupled, fixed, end face coupler and then taper out in this low cost fiber out to 9um or whatever you need. Big bonus, if you need polarized light, they are the only company on earth able to launch through a small 10mm area on this same fiber in or out...remarkably stealth. This is the founding team's 2nd company. The first, Schick Technologies, our first dental digital x ray company...went from the 4 of founders (3 of these same are Chiral founders) through ISO Programs, FDA approvals and through an IPO (including road shows) and finally sold company to German conglomerate...then, they launched Chiral 10 years ago, starting way back in R & D...www.chiralphotonics.com An entirely new class of photonic interconnects made in USA with pride.