Polarized laser light speeds up data center networks

binary data flow

Read an article the other day, Polarizing the data center from IEEE Spectrum, on new optical technology that has the potential to boost data center networking speeds by ~7x beyond what it is today. The research was released in a Nature article, Ultrafast spin lasers (paywall) but a previous version of the paper was released on PLOS (Ultrafast spin lasers) was freely available

It’s still in lab demonstration at this point, but if it does make into the data center, it has the potential to remove local networking as a bottleneck for application workloads, at least for the foreseeable future.

The new technology is based on polarizing (right or left circular) laser light and using plolarization to encode ones and zeros. Today’s optical transceivers seem to use on-off or brightness level to encode data signals, which requires a lot of power (and by definition cooling) to work. On the other hand, polarizing laser light takes ~7% of the power (and cooling), then the old style of on and off laser light. 

How it works

Not sure I understand all the physics but it appears that if you are able to control the carrier spin within a semiconductor, Vertical-Cavity Surface-Emitting Laser (VCSEL), it transmutes carrier spin into photon polarization, and by doing so, emits polarized laser light. And with appropriate sensors, this laser light polarization can be detected and decoded. 

In addition, due to some physical constraints, modulating (encoding) laser intensity will never be faster than modulating (encoding) carrier spin. This has something to do with cycling the laser on and off vs, the polarization process. As such, one should be able to can transmit more information by polarized laser light than by intensified laser light.

Moreover, polarization can be done at room temperature. Apparently, VCSELs operating today typically hit 70C in normal high speed operations, vs. ~21C for VCSELs using polarization.

Lab results

In the lab they are using (I believe) mechanical bending in combination with a pulsed laser to create the spin carriers in the VCSEL’s that polarize the laser light. This is just used for demonstrating purposes. Unclear whether this approach will be useable in a data center application of the technology.

In their lab experiments they were able to demonstrate VCSEL polarization cycles (how quickly they could change polarization) in the 5 ps (pico-second, trillionths of a second) range. This resulted in transmitting something on the order of 214Ghz of polarized light cycles. Somewhere in the PLoS article they mentioned transmitting a random bit string using the technology and not just cycling through 1s and 0s over and over again.

The researchers believe that by moving from mechanical bending, to the use of a photonic crystal or strained quantum well-based VCSELs will allow them to move from signaling at 214Ghz to 1Thz, or ~28X what can be done with laser intensity signaling today. 

I don’t know whether the technology will get out of the lab anytime soon but 1Thz  (~1Tbps) seems something most IT organizations would want, especially if the price is right is similar to today’s technology.

The research mentioned this would be more suitable for data center networking rather than long range data transfers. Not sure why but it could be because 1) it’s still relatively experimental and 2) they have yet to determine distance degradation parameters.

Of course normal (on-off) signaling technology using VCSELs is not standing still. There’s always a potential for moving beyond any current physical constraints to boost some technologies capabilities. Just witness the superparamagnetic barrier in magnetic disk over the years. That physical barrier has moved multiple times during my career.

However, a nearly order of magnitude of speed and more than an order of magnitude of power/cooling improvements are hard to come by with mature technology. I see a polarized optical fiber networking in data centers of the future.

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