01:14 PM

IBM breakthrough in light beam processing

The era of light computing may be upon us. IBM unveiled today a prototype transceiver that can transmit and receive data by beaming light pulses through plastic fibers, The SF Chronicle reports.

IBM vice president and technology guru Bernard Meyerson said that the chips could break through looming data chokepoints on the Internet.

As Meyerson explained it, the idea is to reduce the amount of energy it takes to transmit data. Today it is common to send data as a stream of electrons flowing through copper wires, but that turns out to take comparatively large amounts of electricity. In addition to the cost of the electricity, large electric currents also generate heat and that puts pressure on the air-conditioning systems in data centers and demands yet more energy.

By comparison, it takes far less energy to send pulses of laser light flowing through clear filaments of glass or, in this case, plastic. Meyerson said IBM's prototype transceiver chips can transmit 160 gigabits of data per second, using less power that it would take to run the sort of safety light people plug in to the hallway or bathroom at night.

The cost breakthrough for this kind of performance is massive. IBM will be able to sell its 160-Gbps chipsets for $500 to $600, while today's 40-Gbps transceivers cost about $25,000, according to one technology analyst.

Further down the road, the technology could move from routers and switches to PCs, speeding up download times exponentially, from, say half an hour for a high-def video to one second.