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IBM, Agilent work on optical connectors

The companies nab a three-year deal with the Defense Department to shrink optical technology so it can be used to connect components within a computer.

Optical technology is widely used today for long-haul data transmission, but IBM and Agilent have won a $30 million contract from the Defense Department to shrink the technology so it can be used to connect components within a single computer.

Under the three-year contract, the companies plan to produce working optical data transmission electronics that can transmit as much as 1 terabit of data per second while not exceeding the space and power constraints of a computer's interior. The contract, announced Thursday, is with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The optical technology is intended to sidestep physical limits that constrain today's interconnections, typically made of copper traces laid down on an electronics card.

"It becomes more and more difficult for copper to go the longer distances," Marc Taubenblatt, senior manager of optical communications at IBM Research, said in an interview. "Over time, the distances where optical wins (over copper) will go shorter and shorter."

Optical transmission technology is a hot area of research, with interest expanding from networking and telecommunications companies more familiar with the technology to giants such as Intel. Current research has focused on everything from nanotubes to ocean sponges.

The IBM-Agilent technology is designed to provide a way to keep up with ever-growing needs to transfer data within a computer--most notably in a server with numerous processors that must share data, Taubenblatt said. IBM said the demand for this bandwidth has been increasing 10-fold every four years, as more and faster processors are built into servers. Keeping up with that growth using copper connections without exceeding power constraints is difficult, Taubenblatt said.

The first phase of the contract will involve building some necessary components in the first 18 months. If Agilent and IBM are successful, they'll work to complete the full three-year contract to produce working prototypes.

The companies are seeking to produce small components, less than 2 square millimeters in area, that consume low power of 5 milliwatts to 10 milliwatts for each gigabit per second of data that can be sent.

Taubenblatt said the project members plan to transmit 10 gigabits to 15 gigabits of data per second over each optical channel, and to bind about 50 channels together.

For now, the project will maintain a traditional copper connection to the optical equipment that translates data into pulses of light. In the longer term, it's possible the chips themselves will include this capability, permitting direct optical connections, but that will be difficult given power constraints of processors, Taubenblatt said.