Future PCs could run at light speed

A team of veteran computer designers has begun a five-year, $13.5 million project to design a so-called OptIPuter that would eliminate the bandwidth bottlenecks in today's large servers.

With National Science Foundation funding, the researchers want to design a computer with components that talk to each other through fiber optics, said Gregory R. Hidley, head of technology infrastructure at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology of La Jolla, Calif.

The principal investigator is Larry Smarr, former head of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications in Champaign, Ill.

For many decades, microprocessor speeds have roughly doubled every 18 months, a rule of thumb known as Moore's Law. But electrical communication between a large system's processors and its memory and disk storage failed to keep pace.

Optical networks, however, have gotten to the point where bandwidth is doubling roughly every nine months, Hidley said.

In the proposed OptIPuter, to be built in San Diego, the networks and interconnects will be as fast as the processors if not faster, Hidley said. The OptIPuter will use high-end optical switches and routers from Richardson, Texas, startup Chiaro Networks Ltd.

The optical switches can transmit up to 6.3 trillion bits per second, said Steven J. Wallach, vice president for technology at Chiaro Networks and a co-founder of former supercomputer maker Convex Computer Corp.

High-bandwidth computing could make telemedicine easier by speeding the transfer of large data files from medical imaging devices, said Philip M. Papadopoulos, program director for grid and cluster computing at the NSF-funded San Diego Supercomputer Center.

'When you hook things together and transfer data back and forth very reliably, it becomes transparent whether your data is 50 yards or 50 kilometers away,' Wallach said. 'Now the grid is the supercomputer.'

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of Illinois at Chicago are investigating a so-called switched-lambda approach, in which dense wavelength division multiplexing carries multiple channels on a single fiber.

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