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Laser Data Transmission: Moving Data at the Speed of Light

Ilya Leybovich Writer, KBS

How laser arrays, hybrid fiber optics and new research in silicon photonics are ushering in new ways to manage big data.

Advances in laser technology are enabling data centers to transfer information with unprecedented speed and reliability.

As optical-based systems extend across the world, are we approaching the era of light-speed computing?

The proliferation of lightning-quick processors, high-speed internet connections and near-instant communications may have you wondering, “How much faster can technology possibly get?”

The answer is simple: faster than we ever imagined. Today, researchers and engineers across the globe are pioneering sophisticated optical-based systems that are reshaping how data is sent and received. Transmit_module_2 From Finance to First-Person Shooters

One of the main areas of light-based innovation is internet connectivity, where for years fiber optic cables have dominated the industry. But fiber networks rely on cable that’s laid through the ground, and as a result they aren’t always straight, which can reduce latency. In contrast, free-space optics — essentially lasers — beam information in perfectly straight lines between two locations, which lends an edge to connection speeds and transfer rates.

Wall Street has taken note: in the effort to shave off nanoseconds from every financial transaction, the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ have enlisted telecom company Anova Technologies, in partnership with AOptix, to develop light-based solutions.

Laser systems are estimated to be as fast as microwave transmissions while having the same capacity as high-speed fiber optics, which carry a thousand times the amount of data as microwave.

Moreover, Anova’s laser arrays make calculations 300,000 times a second to pinpoint the tightest possible beam between towers. “We saw an opportunity to disrupt ourselves with the laser,” said Mike Persico, the founder and CEO of Anova.

“In the past, we built high-capacity wireless networks, but those systems were sensitive to environmental conditions. How good is a network that goes down when someone sneezes at the base of the tower?”

Anova found a novel way to handle these vulnerabilities. The company developed a hybrid system that combines multiple spectrums with mutually exclusive attenuation conditions.

In other words, these transmission methods have strengths and deficiencies that complement one another.

An apt analogy might be: a laser doesn’t care about rain, but it doesn’t like fog. Meanwhile, the radio frequency spectrum doesn’t care about fog, but it cares about rain.

By creating a hybrid, you’re ensuring that one spectrum is always carrying data,” Persico explained. “That way, you have a system that essentially never goes down.”

The hybrid system simulcasts data over both laser and radio frequency spectrums, while an automated controller looks at the data traffic on a byte-by-byte basis and chooses the best spectrum for the moment.

In a given data packet, 40 percent could be delivered by radio frequency, and 60 percent by laser.

The end result is exponentially higher network availability and capacity.

“Are we sending data at the speed of light? Yes, but that doesn’t mean the race to zero is over. The next battlefield is capacity and availability,” added Persico.

“As for latency, we’re pretty much at the maximum limit. We’re reaching a point where the time increments are so small, measured in picoseconds, that we’re effectively at zero,” he said.

“A computer system can live at those speeds, but humans can’t — we can’t even conceive of the scale.”

Light-based connectivity could also have a major impact on the gaming community, as video game companies are racing to find ways to reduce lag during multiplayer matches. IMAGE2 Meanwhile, providers like Anova and AOptix are looking to cross the next threshold in laser-based connectivity: creating a global wireless network that doesn’t rely on terrestrial lines.

“The next challenge is finding ways to extend these wireless capabilities across the ocean instead of depending on fiber cables laid across the seabed,” Persico said.

“There’s a concept being developed of an air bridge that can cross the Atlantic, the Pacific — the whole world, basically — with wireless connectivity. I think that’s the next big innovation.”

The Light-Based Supercomputer

If light-based technology transmits data faster across the globe, what would happen on a micro level by having optical transmission built into computer chips themselves? That’s the goal of Intel’s Silicon Photonics Solutions Group (SPSG), which is working to incorporate laser transmission in data centers and, eventually, personal computers.

A major bottleneck for data speed is that computers rely on electrical signals sent through copper wires, which encounter resistance that degrades and slows the speed of transmission. Even if information is transmitted at the speed of light via the Internet, data centers and computers are limited by these copper connections.

Silicon photonics, which can move data at up to 100 gigabytes per second (more than twice the maximum speed of traditional networking cables), may be the solution to the bottleneck problem. Intel has developed integrated modules equipped with optical components, such as silicon lasers, that apply light-speed transmission on the chip and circuit board level while reducing the dependence on copper. IMAGE3 “As we scale in datacenters and high-performance computing, there are handhelds, clients, 3-D TVs and high-resolution monitors that are going to want and consume more bandwidth,” explained Mario Paniccia, Intel fellow and chief technology officer of the Silicon Photonics Solutions Group.

“We’re showing the ability to deliver that bandwidth through a single chip based on silicon photonics.”

These breakthrough technologies could have profound implications. If different computing functions could be brought together through light-based components, it could someday lead to the first all-optical supercomputer whose speeds would dwarf the most powerful hardware that exists today.

As lasers continue to accelerate the speed at which information is delivered, we may be soon be seeing the dawn of speed-of-light computing.

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