Sun shows off its proximity communication silicon

Getting rid of the tiny wires inside computers would greatly improve performance. Sun Microsystems wants to do that with proximity communication, but it will take time.

Proximity communication--an interconnect technology being devised by Sun Microsystems that lets two devices swap data just by being near each other--isn't ready for commercial release, but the company is showing off samples.

At the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo in Las Vegas this week, David Douglas of Sun Labs showed off silicon that embodies the concept. Here is a link to a video on his talk on ZDNet. Douglas is holding the chips, which he didn't demonstrate in action.

In proximity communication, two capacitors sit near each other. When data is sent to capacitor one, it gets charged. The charge then transfers to the second, nearby capacitor. The signal then gets amplified. "And the data kind of goes on its merry way," he said.

Conceivably, proximity communication, and similar projects taking place at IBM and other companies, could both increase the speed and volume of data transfer between chips. It also might cut costs. A chip might have 5,000 internal connecting wires and 2,000 solder balls on the outside of its package, Douglas said. This could be eliminated. Computer designers could also get rid of dedicated silicon for swapping data.

Making sure that data doesn't get corrupted while getting wirelessly swapped in the high-temperature, high-speed environment that is the inside of a server, however, remains a challenge. Conceptually similar concepts include "through-silicon vias," which are tiny wires between chips. TSVs aren't wireless, but they do eliminate much of the bulk of packaging. Intel and IBM are both working on this technology.

It is not an overnight project. Sun first started talking about (but not yet showing chips for) proximity communication in 2004. The technology was part of a supercomputer bid for DARPA. The original goal was to come out with the computer in 2010. DARPA subsequently narrowed down the project, and Sun was no longer a participant.

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