Datacenters are a critical component of the modern internet, responsible for processing and storing tremendous amounts of data in the “cloud.” Datacenters also provide the computational power needed for handling “big data,” a growing segment of the U.S. economy. Currently, datacenters consume more than 2.5% of U.S. electricity and this figure is projected to double in about eight years due to the expected growth in data traffic. There are many approaches to improving the energy efficiency of datacenters, but these strategies will be limited by the efficiency with which information travels along metal interconnects within the devices in the datacenter—all the way down to the computer chips that process information. Unlike metal interconnects, photonic interconnects do not rely on electrons flowing through metal to transmit information. Instead, these devices send and receive information in the form of photons—light—enabling far greater speed and bandwidth at much lower energy and cost per bit of data. The integration of photonic interconnects will enable new network architectures and photonic network topologies that hold the potential to double overall datacenter efficiency over the next decade.
Project Innovation + Advantages:
The IBM T.J. Watson Research Center will develop datacenter networking technology incorporating extremely fast switching devices that operate on the nanosecond scale. At the heart of the process is the development of a new type of photonic switch. The dominant switching technology today are electronic switches that toggle connections between two wires, each wire providing a different communication channel. A photonic switch toggles connections between two optical fibers, where each individual fiber themselves can carry many communication channels allowing immense numbers of data transfers. Previously, photonic (or optical) switches exhibited slow switching speeds and were difficult to manufacture in high volumes, which limited their usage. IBM's photonic switches can switch quickly, similar to electronic switches, and can be fabricated using the same tools and procedures used to manufacture today's most complex microprocessors. Because each optical port carries significantly more data than their electronic counterparts, fewer ports are needed to route the same amount of data. The technology also saves time and energy because employing direct optical switching can reduce the number of times the signal needs to be converted back and forth from the electrical to optical domain and vice versa. Datacenter efficiency (including computing, memory, and communication) can be significantly improved by using photonic switches to develop new networks capable of exploiting these improvements.
If successful, developments from ENLITENED projects will result in an overall doubling in datacenter energy efficiency in the next decade through deployment of new photonic network topologies.
The United States is home to much of the world’s datacenter infrastructure. Photonic networks add resilience that can bolster the energy security of this critical driver of economic activity.
Reducing the overall energy consumption of datacenters cuts energy-related emissions per bit of data transmitted and processed.
Photonic networks can lower the costs associated with operating datacenters, improving American economic competitiveness in this fast-developing area.