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  • Sun Wins $44M to Speed Chips
Mar 2008
SANTA CLARA, Calif., March 24, 2008 -- Sun Microsystems Inc. announced today it has received $44 million to speed computing by interconnecting an array of microchips into one "macrochip" using lasers instead of copper wires. If successful, the program could create a kind of "supercomputer on a chip" for applications that demand extreme computing and communication speeds, such as energy exploration, biotechnology and weather simulation.

Sun said the $44.29 million, five-year contract from DARPA will fund an effort to use silicon photonics and the company's proximity communication technology (wireless chip-to-chip communication) to interconnect low-cost microchips via on-chip optical networks instead of wires. The project, part of DARPA's Ultraperformance Nanophotonic Intrachip Communication (Unic) program, will begin with $8.1 million paid to Sun's Microelectronics and Laboratories divisions.

Silicon photonics is a relatively new field that integrates optical functions into CMOS chips, allowing the chips to communicate with other chips optically, which makes communications faster and more secure.

"Optical communications could be a truly game-changing technology -- an elegant way to continue impressive performance gains while completely changing the economics of large-scale silicon production," said Greg Papadopoulos, chief technology officer and executive vice president of research and development for Sun.

With current technology, as microprocessors get smaller and faster, the wires they contain get smaller and slower. On the printed circuit boards of today's computers, information and electrical power travel over copper wires between CPUs, memory and input/output (I/O) devices. The devices are connected by wires using pins and other technologies which are massive in size compared to the submicron features on the chip itself.

Instead of making processor chips larger, Sun's proximity communication technology allows chips to all behave as a single integrated circuit as the signals "jump" from one chip to another through capacitive coupling instead of wires. (The macrochip also doesn't need sockets, pins, and circuit boards, which add cost to a system.) Sun will now attempt to make the signals move from chip to chip via laser beams.

By providing higher bandwidth, lower latency, and lower-power interconnections between the parallel computing chips in such an array, the research could help advance applications that demand superfast I/O speeds, such as gene sequencing.

“DARPA’s Unic program will demonstrate high performance photonic technology for high bandwidth, on-chip, photonic communications networks for advanced (10 trillion operations/second) microprocessors. By restoring the balance between computation and communications, the program will significantly enhance DoD's (Department of Defense) capabilities for applications such as image processing, autonomous operations, synthetic aperture radar, as well as supercomputing,” said Jag Shah, PhD, program manager in DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office.

The program could also extend Moore's Law, an observation by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore more than 40 years ago that the number of transistors on a chip will double roughly every two years.

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The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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