Cisco wants to light up data centers

Cisco buys Lightwire to create high-speed, high-volume switches that are priced for data centers.

So Cisco Systems is buying Lightwire, a Pennsylvania start-up that makes optical technology for high-speed networking.

Apparently, Cisco believes Lightwire’s high-speed yet small silicon chips that can be used to transmit data via pulses of light instead of electric signals will come in useful. In a prepared statement, Surya Panditi, senior VP of Cisco’s Service Provider Networking Group, said the acquisition “will support our data center and service provider customers as they manage the continuing deluge of network traffic alongside tight capital and operating budgets.” Cisco agreed to pay $271 million for Lightwire.

Optical networking technologies are already being used to build fat wide area networks. The State of Mississippi spent about $16 million on an optical network (built by AT&T) so its universities could have access to a high-speed, data sharing network. According to this article about the Mississippi Optical Network, or MissiON, the optical network provides the University of Mississippi (UM) with a bigger pipe that could handle research work that relies on detailed images, videos, simulations and large data sets.

Mississippi State University is also using MissiON, and the University of Southern Mississippi, Jackson State University and the University of Mississippi Medical Center will switch soon. NASA's Stennis Space Center and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also plan to access it, the Clarion Ledger reports.

There are more details about what UM did in this Associated Press article, which notes that UM connects to the State of Mississippi Data Center through two 10 GB managed wave circuits. The university installed new equipment in its data center in December to enable the connection.

What Cisco wants to do with Lightwire, of course, is bring optical networking technologies inside the data center by creating high-speed, high-volume switches that are priced for data centers. That’s where Lightwire comes in. See, it makes its optical chip using traditional complementary metal-oxide semiconductor (CMOS) processing, as opposed to assembling them from multiple parts made with expensive compound semiconductor technology. Lightwire isn’t the only game in town… IBM does this, as does Luxtera and Intel. In this paper from the Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exposition/National Fiber Optic Engineers Conference (OFC/NFOEC) titled “Optical Communications in 2012,” the authors say the “technology is poised to have a large impact on optical interconnects by providing low cost, high data rates and low power consumption.”

In the Cisco statement, Panditi said the combination of Cisco’s expertise in silicon design and Lightwire’s expertise in CMOS photonics will create an “integrated technology platform that supports our customers' burgeoning need for cost-effective high-speed networks."

HP Labs is researching how photonic interconnect components—modulators, detectors, waveguides, and filters—on silicon substrates could change the way computers are built, and will present at the upcoming OFC/NFOEC March 4–8 at the Los Angeles Convention Center. The presentation, titled “Future computing architectures enabled by optical and nanophotonic interconnects,” will look at how photonic interconnects could be used as smarter wire for computer connections, as well as how the technology could completely change how computers are built.

In a press release detailing the presentation, Moray McLaren, a researcher in HP Labs’ Exascale Computing Lab, said, “One very simple example is that within a data center, distance isn’t much of a factor after you’ve transitioned to an optical interconnect. Having paid the price of moving from the electronic domain into the optical domain, we can connect up any distance.”

Another related topic that HP Labs is investigating, in terms of data centers, is pushing down power consumption. Two of the key benefits of photonics are that it has the potential to provide lower-power communication over certain distances, and moving into the optical world provides more headroom in channel capacity and bandwidth densities are much higher. “Photonic interconnects have very different properties than the electronic interconnects that underpin today’s computer architectures. To gain the maximum benefit from emerging nanophotonic interconnects, it’s necessary to reevaluate the design tradeoff at the system architect level,” McLaren noted in the release.

Oh, and if you really want to dive into this, Google presented a paper to the 2010 18th IEEE Symposium on High Performance Interconnects titled, “Scaling Optical Interconnects in Datacenter Networks” and you can read it here.

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