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U.S. project targets optical links for future supercomputers

Posted: 07 Nov 2003 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:IBM-Corning? supercomputers? interconnects?

Seeking to boost strategicially important supercomputing, the Energy Department has awarded a $20 million contract to an IBM-Corning research team to develop optically-switched interconnects for supercomputers.

The 30-month contract for optical interconnect research was awarded to the team of IBM Research and Corning's Science & Technology Division.

The project to develop high-speed, optically switched interconnects for supercomputers combines IBM's electronic control circuity with Corning's all-optical switching technology.

"We are talking real supercomputers here," said Ronald Luijten, manager of server interconnect fabrics at IBM Research. "For us in research this is very exciting; it is a true research project aimed at pushing the limits of optics for supercomputing, and is one in a series of programs aimed at building the next-generation of supercomputers."

Networks of microprocessors using Opteron processors from Advanced Micro Devices, Digital Equipment's Alpha, Intel's Xeon or IBM's PowerPC processors could be harnessed together to form "cluster" supercomputers. The bottleneck then becomes input/output (I/O) among the microprocessors.

The bottleneck must be overcome soon because supercomputers have become a key requirement in several strategic applications too dangerous, big or unpredictable to control in the laboratory, researchers said.

"One of the biggest simulations that the Department of Energy works on is a model of the nuclear stockpile, which international treaties prohibit us from doing in real experiments," said Craig Stunkel, manager of scalable server network and memory systems at IBM Research.

DOE, which manages the national weapons labs and the National Nuclear Security Administration, which also awarded the research contract, is banking on all-optical interconnects as the best approach to solving the I/O bottleneck problem.

"Corning is ready to meet the technology challenge that the national laboratories have posed for high-speed optical supercomputer interconnects," said Joseph Miller, Corning's chief technology officer.

Commercial applications of supercomputers also abound, including drug development, weather forecasting and film animation. Other emerging applications include research into protein-folding and other computationally-intensive biological simulations require supercomputers.

"Exceeding one petaflop [quadrillion operations per second] will enable researchers to break down new barriers in life sciences, weather prediction and defense," said Tilak Agerwala, vice president of systems at IBM Watson Research Center.

The research project will determine whether an all-optical switch can be controlled efficiently with traditional control electronics. Without the marriage of electronic-control and optical switches, the optical interconnect would have to be delayed until all-optical computers are invented to control the optical switch.

"Nobody can build an all-optical solution, so this research project will show what kind of performance we can gain from controlling Corning's optical switch with IBM control electronics," said Luijten.

Luijten predicted that available bandwidth will be increased 50-fold over today's levels. The all-optical switch will also vastly decrease switching costs compared to current switches which require expensive internal optical-to-electronic-to-optical converters.

- R. Colin Johnson

EE Times

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