Linking with Light

Having proven their worth in long-distance communications, photons will soon take over inside the computer

11 min read
Illustration by Bryan Christie Design
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design

graphic illustr. Optical Interconnects

Illustration: Bryan Christie
Coming Soon: Optical Interconnects This approach to signal transfer is moving from longer-distance applications, such as linking separate computers, to joining chips within a computer. Click on image for larger view.

The movement of data in a computer is almost the converse of the movement of traffic in a city. Downtown, in the congested core of the microprocessor, the bits fly at an extraordinary rate. But further out, on the broad avenues of copper that link one processor to another and one circuit board to the next, things slow down to a comparative crawl. A Pentium 4 introduced this spring operates at 2.4 GHz, but the data travels on a bus operating at only 400 MHz. The speed picks up again, though, out on the highways of the world’s optical-fiber telecommunications networks. Obviously, the closer engineers can bring the optical superhighway to the microprocessor, the fewer copper bottlenecks can occur, as if you could pull out of your driveway straight onto the Autobahn.

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