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Using Lasers to Speed Computer Data

Zonk posted more than 7 years ago | from the they-are-not-fricking-lasers dept.

Supercomputing 85

Carl Bialik from WSJ writes "The start-up Lightfleet has developed an unusual way to use lasers to speed the flow of data inside a computer, hoping to break a bottleneck that can hamper machines using many microprocessors, the Wall Street Journal reports. The company plans to sell servers it predicts will be much more efficient than existing systems in tackling tough computing problems. Tasks could include automatically recognizing a face in a video image or sifting through billions of financial transactions for signs of illegal activity. These machines will attempt to sidestep some of the problems associated with parallel computation by ensuring all processors are connected, all the time."

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hmm (3, Insightful)

mastershake_phd (1050150) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206316)

Lightfleet is doing the opposite: using lenses to spread out laser beams and bounce the light off a mirror to send data around a system.

Sounds fragile, and expensive.

Re:hmm (5, Informative)

mikael (484) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206514)

The mirror will be fixed in place, so that shouldn't be a problem.

Normal interprocessor communication would require a crossbar switch or some kind of virtual network to support different grid configurations (square grid, cube mesh, torus, or hypertorus). Usually each node has a router to handle this for it. This system gets rid of the routing and just multicasts each packet of information.

Presumably receiving a data packet prevents a node from sending out another data packet at the same time. Although, this would seem to make the system act as one serial communication line. The benefits of having multiple connections is that messages can be sent between nodes in parallel. Occam had the concept of North, East, South and West connections.

Re:hmm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18208116)

Sounds ideal for vampires -- doesn't work in direct sunlight ;)

Bugger (1)

soloport (312487) | more than 7 years ago | (#18208208)

Moth finds nice, warm computer home. "Ooh! Pretty lights!" And a legendary term acquires new meaning.

Re:Bugger (1)

whargoul (932206) | more than 7 years ago | (#18208584)

Actually, that's how we got that term in the first place http://www.jamesshuggins.com/h/tek1/first_computer _bug.htm [jamesshuggins.com]

Re:hmm (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18208398)

Expensive yes. If by "fragile" you mean susceptible to bit errors caused by vibration of the mirror, yes. But, if you hermetically seal the lasers and protect the chassis from vibration, it could work. Of course, then cooling the laser compartment becomes a problem. The question is, does using lasers to achieve fanout really provide any advantage over electrical circuits? Probably not enough advantage to justify the additional cost and space requirements.

IPOL? (4, Interesting)

jimstapleton (999106) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206338)

IP over Laser, using a mirror as a hub? Interesting concept...

Messages from each processor, or any combination of them, are simultaneously sent to all the other microprocessors. Each receiver only picks out the messages intended for it, because of special addressing information sent with the light beams.


Yes, I know, it's not actually IP, but that's what it makes me think of.

This solves what exactly? (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18206342)

What - besides making your server highly susceptible to dust - does this do that HT does not?

HyperTransport and PCIe are PtP (1)

jd (1658) | more than 7 years ago | (#18213070)

This is most definitely not point-to-point.

o_0 (5, Insightful)

ukatoton (999756) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206346)

"You don't have traffic issues and messages colliding," said Jeffrey Hewitt, an analyst at the research firm Gartner Inc.


Does anyone have any idea how they can have an all-to-all system in which messages don't collide? How is this faster than an electron based system?

Also, isn't dust in the circuits going to be much more of a concern with light based chips?

Re:o_0 (3, Funny)

VitaminB52 (550802) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206468)

Does anyone have any idea how they can have an all-to-all system in which messages don't collide?

Build the CPU around a large free space inside the computer, in such a way that each CPU has a free line of sight to every other CPU.

Oh, and make sure no dust or insects can get inside the computer, and secure the IDE and power cables so can't hang around inside said free space.

Won't work - it's gotta be under water (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18207284)

After all, fricken' sharks need to swim...

Re:o_0 (3, Informative)

I_HATE_THIS (1019084) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206596)

Use different wavelength, CDMA in a beam. And I dont think line-of-sight is necessary with fiber optic cable. Sound like there is no switching, so, it is up to the local processor filter out unwanted messages (sound like Tibrv with light)

Re:o_0 (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18207000)

allocate timeslots, like bluetooth.

Re:o_0 (1)

loners (561941) | more than 7 years ago | (#18211758)

Use different wavelengths for each sending processor.
Each processor has a single receiver that can handle all wavelengths
    or each processor has a receiver for each wavelength in the system.

You aren't suppose to connect multiple outputs to a single input. Or at least that is what I was told in my CSE course.

Seal the transmission corridors to keep dust out.

Re:o_0 (1)

fuliginous (1059354) | more than 7 years ago | (#18217126)

Separate send and receive channels which happen to both be able to be implemented in light which yes does interact and interfere but doesn't harm the content. Plus I it is probably possible for them all to in affect broadcast by zapping to the mirror? So everything can read everything from everywhere.

I suppose it can be quicker through 1/ travelling at the speed of light rather than electrons 2/ using a dedicated protocol that has less over heads than a generic IP one.

frequency.... (1)

way2trivial (601132) | more than 7 years ago | (#18239552)


think of it like this, electrons shooting down wires are like water through your plumbing.. they don't pass it two direction at once.

but, two FM stations on different frequencies can send their top forty music against each other at the same time without interfering.

Freakin' Laser Beams (0, Redundant)

EveryNickIsTaken (1054794) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206362)

I can only hope this somehow involves sharks with freakin' laser beams on their freakin' heads.

Re:Freakin' Laser Beams (1)

Rastignac (1014569) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207244)

1. Install watercooling in your computer.
2. Install sharks with freakin' laser beams on their freakin' heads in the water circuit.
3. ...
4. Profit !

Re:Freakin' Laser Beams (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18210430)

you idiot

Re:Freakin' Laser Beams (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18210976)

I agree with the other AC: YOU IDIOT.

Re:Freakin' Laser Beams (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18213630)

This is the sort of thing that gets articles like these tagged with 'sharks' and not with 'laser'. Which, as far as I'm concerned is pretty sad.

Back to the future (3, Funny)

VitaminB52 (550802) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206416)

If an insect gets inside that computer, then it can block a laserbeam. So debugging [wikipedia.org] get's back to where debugging started: keeping insects out of computer equipment, so they don't obstruct lightpaths.

Re:Back to the future (1)

Assassin bug (835070) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206574)

Yes, but not all insects are bugs (an enlightened term reserved for the suborder Heteroptera [bugguide.net]); therefore a more appropriate terminology would be needed. Maybe disinfest? ;o)

Re:Back to the future (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18210296)

And Blinkenlights once again signal "No Bandwidth Bottlenecks!"

( Neverending I/O is the defining feature of the Mainframe, and reason why a small but elite population survived the attack of cheapo minis and killer micros... *sigh* All right, I'll explain again: Mainframes used to have "Blinkenlights" for operator display; modern mainframes still exist because in some very important uses that ginormous bandwidth [and the RAS and 00.000% downtime] is the only thing that matters; and laser is light... get the joke now? :) *sigh* No? *goes shoot himself* )

Re:Back to the future (1)

Duhavid (677874) | more than 7 years ago | (#18214034)

Get the wattage up enough, and the problem will not be more than momentary.

Re:Back to the future (1)

VitaminB52 (550802) | more than 7 years ago | (#18226118)

Yep. No more bugs :-)

Problem is, it will make the CPUs glow so hot and bright they outshine the lasers - LOL
Are you going to pay the electricity bill ? ROFLOL

Re:Back to the future (1)

Duhavid (677874) | more than 7 years ago | (#18228882)

Problem is, it will make the CPUs glow so hot and bright they outshine the lasers


You say that like it is a bad thing...

Are you going to pay the electricity bill


I am already tapped into your home's electrical system, so cost is not an issue.
Thanks for asking! :-)

Not really a new idea (4, Informative)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206452)

Nohing new to see here..move along...the TI chip that is in the DLP TVs does this already. (from wikipedia) In DLP projectors, the image is created by microscopically small mirrors laid out in a matrix on a semiconductor chip, known as a Digital Micromirror Device (DMD). Each mirror represents one pixel in the projected image. The number of mirrors corresponds to the resolution of the projected image. 800x600, 1024x768, 1280x720, and 1920x1080 (HDTV) matrices are some common DMD sizes. These mirrors can be repositioned rapidly to reflect light either through the lens or on to a heatsink (called a light dump in Barco terminology). The rapid repositioning of the mirrors (essentially switching between 'on' and 'off') allows the DMD to vary the intensity of the light being reflected out through the lens, creating shades of grey in addition to white (mirror in 'on' position) and black (mirror in 'off' position). This system is just a new application of a technology invented in the late 1980's. No reason it's groundbreaking and no reason it shouldn't work in theory. Solid state lasers are very reliable and have a long life time. However, I don't know of any chips that have the ability to directly receive laser light pulses from a source and convert them to 1's and 0's. And keeping the lasers, mirrors and receivers aligned might be tough.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

mark3748 (1002268) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206958)

And keeping the lasers, mirrors and receivers aligned might be tough.
The answer is fiber, of course. Same thing with the dust and other obstructions

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207138)

I thought this design did away with the fiber connections, that was the benefit.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

mark3748 (1002268) | more than 7 years ago | (#18209432)

it does, but that's not exactly the most efficient way to do it. I wasn't saying that's how they are going to do it, I'm just saying that's how to solve the problem.

The light is going to travel the same speed through fiber as is would through air, so I have no idea why they would want to get rid of fiber connections.

The only realistic way you could do this outside of a laboratory environment without fiber, is transferring information between parts of a single chip, such as multiple core processors and the like.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 7 years ago | (#18211884)

Not exactly, it would have to be a sealed unit with shock/vibration isolation. There are similar devices such as a ring-laser gyro that transmit laser pulse w/o fiber. It all adds up to being a nice lab toy, it's far too expensive and impractical for the desktop or server environment.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

Dread Pirate Skippy (963698) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207164)

TFA specifically states they won't be using fiber, and they will be using mirrors. So fiber might be the answer, but probably not to the question at hand.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207178)

from TFA to prove my point.... The design is particularly efficient at sending "all-to-all" messages between chips in a system, said Bill Dress, a Lightfleet senior scientist and co-inventor of the technology. Because the system sends light through air, Lightfleet avoids the need for wiring and associated switching circuitry and software, he adds.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

Trogre (513942) | more than 7 years ago | (#18213326)

However, I don't know of any chips that have the ability to directly receive laser light pulses from a source and convert them to 1's and 0's.

Uh, wouldn't that be a phototransistor? How do you think fibre optic channels work?

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 7 years ago | (#18213946)

The context of the article was CPUs, so that was my meaning when I said "chip". Next time I'll say CPU CHIPS. Name me a mainstream CPU with a phototransistor on-board.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

Pooua (265915) | more than 7 years ago | (#18216188)

twiddlingbits: "Name me a mainstream CPU with a phototransistor on-board."

Who said it had to be a mainstream CPU chip? Who said the phototransistor had to be on the CPU chip itself? The article is vague on such details.

"Lightfleet said new servers it plans to begin selling next summer, which will use 32 dual-processor chips from Intel Corp., can do such feats easily....

"... Each microprocessor is installed with a laser transmitter and a set of devices that receive beams of light..."

Now, it is already well-known that Intel has announced an all-silicon laser for operation in exactly this environment. Even /. has run a few stories about it (as have a half-dozen other techy news sites). See " Intel Researchers Build Laser on Chip" [slashdot.org] and " Intel Announces Lasers On a Chip" [slashdot.org] for a few /. articles.

The news story doesn't say receivers are on the CPU, just that each CPU comes with a set of devices that decode the beam. Current technology would be for them to put the receivers on the same board as the CPU.

No, alignment is not difficult at all. Actually, the beams are projected wide-angle, so a wide number of devices from a wide viewing angle can all read the beam at the same time.

No, this is not really all that simular to a DLP chip. A DLP chip merely reflects light (by swinging little mirrors back and forth). DLP projects an image on a screen. It does not encode digital data on a beam of light--and it would be slow at it if it were adapted to such a use--much less decode it.

But, you were correct that this is not a completely new idea. I have copies of research notes in my personal library that depict such devices, which have been experimentally prototyped in lab environments for more than a decade.

Re:Not really a new idea (1)

twiddlingbits (707452) | more than 7 years ago | (#18223482)

A DLP actually does encode, it's either 1 (light on a area) or 0 (light off an area), that is a simple code. DLPs are fast, but certainly not in the GB/Sec range such as a FibreChannel type connection. But those fast connections take special (expensive) hardware.

  How will each CPU seperate the data meant for chip X from that meant from Chip Y since it seems to be to be a broadcast bus not a point-to-point connection.(i.e. there has to be a protocol)? Is the decoder on-board the CPU (extra silicon) or is it another chip? Adding another external interconnect to CPU to integrate a laster transmit/receive Chip is not really going to solve the problem. Intel already has issues with off chip I/O speed due to the Northbridge/Southbridge (one place where AMD still wins), and any external laser receiver would have to interface to that standard if it's going to be an X86 CPU. Of course it could be a totally new CPU or a dedicated special purpose CPU (article is unclear).

Prototyped in labs for more than a decade and not yet been deployed into a system? That seems kinda of odd. Most R&D has got to pay back before 10 years.

Hate to be a negative nancy (2, Insightful)

bperkins (12056) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206506)

I'm a bit surprised the Wall Street Journal would more or less paraphrase a vacuous press release and pass it off as an article.

I'm less surprised (but still surprised) that slashdot would pick up such a piece.

My suggestion for a tag:
pressreleaseaseasjournalism

Re:Hate to be a negative nancy (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18207650)

Surprised? That is standard operating procedure at most newspapers and on most pages of the remaining few quality papers that still employ a few journalists. It's been like this for at least a decade or two, and older farts than me can tell if it ever was any better.

You think so? (1)

jd (1658) | more than 7 years ago | (#18213156)

I'm restricted by NDA and by corporate policy in what I can say, so I won't comment on the article itself. I will say though that most newspapers are nothing more than paid advertising that run a few real articles as typing exercises.

Passive Star Networking (5, Interesting)

PSaltyDS (467134) | more than 7 years ago | (#18206554)

The US Navy used to do networking over a Codenoll Passive Star network [dbasinc.com]. The modified 10Base-FL NICs sent transmit pulses to passive hub, which optically coupled all the rcv/xmt ports together in what was essentially a fused glass blob. Codenoll calls it 10Base-FP.

The useful thing about it was being completely unpowered. The passive hub could stuffed into/behind anything where the fiber could reach it and there was no configuration, power, management, etc. Of course, those were also its weakness: no configuration, management, etc. A lot of these were installed in the early 90's, but I don't think the Navy uses them any more.

Re:Passive Star Networking (1)

moosesocks (264553) | more than 7 years ago | (#18214490)

Verizon uses a similar technology for its FTTP network. Each node operates on a slightly different wavelength, which is separated by a passive prism-type device at the street level. Effectively, this means that in areas where FTTP is deployed, there will be no active electronics on the poles, which has numerous advantages.

Of course, speeds are *much* faster than 10mbps.

Thanks (0, Flamebait)

UbuntuDupe (970646) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207032)

I just wanted to give a big thanks to taggers for not putting the "sharks" tag on a laser-related article. At least, not yet anyway.

Re:Thanks (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18207114)

If (for some incomprehensible reason) this catches on and is broadly adopted by industry, it will require the development of some kind of standardized signalling protocol.

I'm going to throw "Frikken Shark Protocol" (FSP) out there for consideration.

Re:Thanks (1)

mobby_6kl (668092) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207424)

I wasn't going to, but now that you said it, I've tagged this article "sharks".

I don't see what you problem is with this tag anyway. A few years from now you'll be able to search for "sharks" to get all laser related stories.

Lazer (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18207116)

Imma Chargin' Mah Lazer!

Two words (2, Interesting)

gr8_phk (621180) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207332)

Snake Oil. Actually, they don't even have a product yet. What's the term for raising money for an idea that will never fly?

Re:Two words (1)

porpnorber (851345) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207950)

The DMCA already provides legal protection for snake oil in the form of copy protection schemes. Even if this technology doesn't work in the least, all it would take is for a Digital Millennium Networking Act to be passed saying that nobody is allowed to demonstrate flaws in a networking technology.... When there's a government to supply the truth, who needs a working product anyway?

Obligatory (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18207722)

Imagine a beowulf cluster of irate sea bass.

more info from patent app (1)

shizzle (686334) | more than 7 years ago | (#18207994)

If you're interested in the details, check out US patent application 20040156640 here [uspto.gov].

It's brutally long (51 pages!) but provides a lot more details.

Basically each node has N (or N-1) receivers spaced slightly apart, along with a single transmitter. These receivers & transmitters are all in the same plane opposite a mirror. Every node can transmit simultaneously. The different angles at which the transmitters hit the mirror cause the beams to focus on a different receiver within each node's array.

At least that's one possible embodiment...

Re:more info from patent app (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18209370)

51 pages and no pictures?!

Re:more info from patent app (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18214700)

So apparently William B. Dress is the only one listed on the patent application that is still actually working for Lightfleet? Seems a bit odd, doesn't it?

Faster computers only used to Protect Public? (1)

mathx (988938) | more than 7 years ago | (#18208024)

Why are both examples of how a faster computer could benefit society framed in a 'law and order' and 'keep the public safe' context? Smart marketing that plays upon the already nicely laid groundwork of the American administration?

I wonder if faster computers could help the average person in any way at all.. cant think of any examples tho. :/

-math

Re:Faster computers only used to Protect Public? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18208546)

I wonder if faster computers could help the average person in any way at all...

This amazing new technology will enable you to play your Windows solitaire games at the speed of light!!!

I call bullshit. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18208252)

Using lasers in free space to achieve fanout provides no advantage over using electrical circuits, but takes up more space. They've got far more managers than engineers working there. They've never even produced a working prototype. They have only a handful of angel investor capital, not enough to bring a product to market. The "Director of Product Technology" came to work there, decided that everything that had been done before him was crap and should be discarded, and pulled a completely new, inefficient, and probably unimplementable design out of his ass. Oh, and the "Chief Scientist and co-inventor" still listed on their web page got pissed off at the company for throwing away his original design back in September, and hasn't been into work since! Lightfleet... coming soon to a "fuckedcompany.com" website near you!

Re:I call bullshit. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18209274)

Lightfleet... coming soon to a "fuckedcompany.com" website near you!

Let's just hope it ends there, and that this company doesn't turn into another SCO launching IP-infringement lawsuits at anyone who does "information" things with "light".

The power of slashdot (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18214416)

Soon after the Oh, and the "Chief Scientist and co-inventor" still listed on their web page got pissed off at the company for throwing away his original design back in September, and hasn't been into work since! comment was posted, Brian Donovan's bio was removed from the Lightfleet/Company/Technologists web page! Just a remarkable coincidence? You decide!

Sounds to me like someone struck a raw nerve!

Actually, that's pretty cool... (1)

Tarlus (1000874) | more than 7 years ago | (#18208268)

It will literally be like computing at the speed of light!

In using light to relay computer data, the only barrier that would be left would be to reduce the distance between two communicating nodes (or reduce overall size of the technology).

Re:Actually, that's pretty cool... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18208722)

i would have thought the barrier or bottleneck would lie in the photo-->electro conversion and necessary decoding of the light packets.

Taking something out of Networking... (1)

mlw4428 (1029576) | more than 7 years ago | (#18210304)

Why not use fiber cables to connect the processors? It eliminates the problem with dust as well as the need for mirrors that take up system space.

a "bus"? (1)

chanceH (197827) | more than 7 years ago | (#18210486)

so, I actually skimmed the article.

I'm way to lazy to actually read all of the words in it.

But isn't this just a "bus"? but its done with lasers?

I'm not really seeing the advatange, except that you get to use the word "laser" in your IPO?

Re:a "bus"? (1)

jd (1658) | more than 7 years ago | (#18213260)

Find me a multicast-capable bus that electrically scales and I'll find you an answer.

Tbps Cell IO (1)

Doc Ruby (173196) | more than 7 years ago | (#18210794)

The Sony/IBM/Toshiba Cell uP already has an onchip token ring running at 204GBps [wikipedia.org]. Sony is reportedly developing an optical interconnect to join devices together, presumably at that speed (1.64Tbps).

What interconnects already exist anywhere near that speed? 10Gbps ethernet is about $400 per card on a PCIe bus, or 2x10Gbps on a card for $700. Is there 100Gbps for sale today at any price? Any other >10Gbps signalling on a PCIe card, or even on a motherboard?

What's the advantage? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 7 years ago | (#18211420)

Lightfleet: because sending data through a serdes, a laser transmitter/receiver pair, and another serdes MUST be faster than sending data through a serdes, a piece of wire, and another serdes!

doomed! (1)

casehardened (700814) | more than 7 years ago | (#18214330)

Not to be too harsh, but: 1) Nobody on their management, board of directors, or technical board has an optics background 2) They're doing this in free space. That's fine in a _mechanically stable environment_ 3) Computers are not mechanically stable enviroments. PCB boards flex. Things heat up and cool down. Everything moves around over time 4) Focusing a received laser beam to a detector requires precise alignment. A 1 GHz detector is ~ 0.4 mm square. A 12 GHz detector is 25 microns square (New Focus Optics). So, either they can do a slow data bus that's stable, or a fast one that isn't. They're screwed. Yes, I am an optical engineer.

Hurry up ... (1)

PPH (736903) | more than 7 years ago | (#18214504)

... and finish coding that module or I will shoot you with my laser.


Waddya know? It works!

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