Photonic or Optical FPGAs on the horizon

Read an article this past week (Toward an optical FPGA – programable silicon photonics circuits) on a new technology that could underpin optical  FPGAs. The technology is based on implantable wave guides and uses silicon on insulator technology which is compatible with current chip fabrication.

How does the Optical FPGA work

Their Optical FPGA is based on an eraseable direct coupler (DC) built using GE (Germanium) ion implantation. A DC is used when two optical waveguides are placed close enough together such that optical energy (photons) on one wave guide is switched over to the other, nearby wave guide.

As can be seen in the figure, the red (eraseable, implantable) and blue (conventional) wave guides are fabricated on the FPGA. The red wave guide performs the function of DC between the two conventional wave guides. The diagram shows both a single stage and a dual stage DC.

By using imlantable (eraseable) DCs, one can change the path of a photonic circuit by just erasing the implantable wave guide(s).

The GE ion implantable wave guides are erased by passing a laser over it and thus annealing (melting) it.

Once erased, the implantable wave guide DC no longer works. The chart on the left of the figure above shows how long the implantable wave guide needs to be to work. As shown above once erased to be shorter than 4-5µm, it no longer acts as a DC.

It’s not clear how one directs the laser to the proper place on the Optical FPGA to anneal the implantable wave guide but that’s a question of servos and mirrors.

Previous attempts at optical FPGAs, required applying continuing voltage to maintain the switched photonics circuits. Once voltage was withdrawn the photonics reverted back to original configuration.

But once an implantable wave guide is erased (annealed) in their approach, the changes to the Optical FPGA are permanent.

FPGAs today

Electronic FPGAs have never gone out of favor with customers doing hardware innovation. By supplying Optical FPGAs, the techniques in the paper would allow for much more photonics innovation as well.

Optics are primarily used in communications and storage (CD-DVDs) today. But quantum computing could potentially use photonics and there’s been talk of a 100% optical computer for a long time. As more and more photonics circuitry comes online, the need for an optical FPGA grows. The fact that it’s able to be grown on today’s fab lines makes it even more appealing.

But an FPGA is more than just directional control over (electronic or photonic) energy. One needs to have other circuitry in place on the FPGA for it to do work.

For example, if this were an electronic FPGA, gates, adders, muxes, etc. would all be somewhere on the FPGA

However, once having placed additional optical componentry on the FPGA, photonic directional control would be the glue that makes the Optical FPGA programmable.


Photo Credit(s): All photos from Toward an optical FPGA – programable silicon photonics circuits paper


A “few exabytes-a-day” from SKA

A number of radio telescopes, positioned close together pointed at a cloudy sky
VLA by C. G. P. Grey (cc) (from Flickr)

ArsTechnica reported today on the proposed Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio telescope and it’s data requirements. IBM is in collaboration with the Netherlands Institute for Radio Astronomy (ASTRON) to help develop the SKA called the DOME project.

When completed in ~2024, the SKA will generate over an exabyte a day (10**18) of raw data.  I reported in a previous post how the world was generating an exabyte-a-day, but that was way back in 2009.

What is the SKA?

The new SKA telescope will be a configuration of “millions of radio telescopes” which when combined together will create a telescope with an aperture of one square kilometer, which is no small feet.  They hope that the telescope will be able to shed some light on galaxy evolution, cosmology and dark energy.  But it will go beyond that to investigating “strong-field tests of gravity“, “origins and evolution of cosmic magnetism” and search for life on other planets.

But the interesting part from a storage perspective is that the SKA will be generating a “few exabytes a day” of radio telescopic data for every full day of operation.   Apparently the new radio telescopes will make use of a new, more sensitive detector able to generate data of up to 10GB/second.

How much data, really?

The team projects final storage needs at between 300 to 1500 PB per year. This compares to the LHC at CERN which consumes ~15PB of storage per year.

It would seem that the immediate data download would be the few exabytes and then it would be post- or inline-processed into something more mangeable and store-able.  Unless they have some hellaciously fast processing, I am hard pressed to believe this could all happen inline.  But then they would need at least another “few exabytes” of storage to buffer the data feed before processing.

I guess that’s why it’s still a research project.  Presumably, this also says that the telescope won’t be in full operation every day of the year, at least at first.

The IBM-ASTRON DOME collaboration project

The joint research project was named for the structure that covers a major telescope and for a famous Swiss mountain.  Focus areas for the IBM-ASTRON DOME project include:

  • Advanced high performance computing utilizing 3D chip stacks for better energy efficiency
  • Optical interconnects with nanophotonics for high-speed data transfer
  • Storage for both high access performance access and for dense/energy efficient data storage.

In this last focus area, IBM is considering the use of phase change memories (PCM) for high access performance and new generation tape for dense/efficient storage.  We have discussed PCM before in a previous post as an alternative to NAND based storage today (see Graphene Flash Memory).  But IBM has also been investigating MRAM based race track memory as a potential future storage technology.  I would guess the advantage of PCM over MRAM might be access speed.

As for tape, IBM has already demonstrated in their labs technologies for a 35TB tape. However storing 1500 PB would take over 40K tapes per year so they may need another even higher capacities to support SKA tape data needs.

Of course new optical interconnects will be needed to move this much data around from telescope to data center and beyond.  It’s likely that the nanophotonics will play some part as an all optical network for transceivers, amplifiers, and other networking switching gear.

The 3D chip stacks have the advantage of decreasing chip IO and more dense packing of components will make efficient use of board space.  But how these help with energy efficiency is another question.  The team projects very high energy and cooling requirements for their exascale high performance computing complex.

If this is anything like CERN, datasets gathered onsite are initially processed then replicated for finer processing elsewhere (see 15PB a year created by CERN post.  But moving PBs around like SKA will require is way beyond today’s Internet infrastructure.


Big science like this gives a whole new meaning to BIGData. Glad I am in the storage business.  Now just what exactly is nanophotonics, mems based phote-electronics?