IBM Unveils Nanophotonic Chips that Could Lead the Exascale Computing Revolution

A Conventional CMOS Chip
The CMOS chips of the very near future will communicate via pulses of light rather than electricity, increasing speed by three orders of magnitude.NASA

IBM is prepped to lead the way into the next era of exascale computing, at least if the technology they showed off at a convention today in Chiba, Japan can live up to expectations. Today IBM lifted the veil on its CMOS Integrated Silicon Nanophotonics (CISN) technology at Semicon Japan, saying its next-gen silicon chips that communicate via pulses of light, rather than electrical signals, will be commercially available starting next year.

In the chip sector, nanophotonics are thought to be the inevitable future of CMOS chip tech, and nearly every major player in the field – Intel, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, Freescale, etc. – has dabbled in the technology. CISN promises to unlock exascale computing power, removing the roadblocks between today's chip technology and processors that are 1,000 times faster than today's petascale computers.

How does one create a chip that executes one million trillion operations per second? Switch from copper to light. Chips that communicate over optical interconnects rather than electron swapping connections can perform much faster. And the more optical connections you have, the better. That's why IBM is currently expanding its manufacturing capacity (some of which is licensed to other companies) in order to produce the nanophotonic chips in large quantities. The company predicts CISN technology will ship next year, but in the next five years it's due for an evolution: It'll go from simply connecting systems to connecting boards in the same system and eventually to connecting cores on the same microprocessor.