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Enlightra Lights the Future Path of Data Transmission

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There’s lots of focus as of late to get data closer to where it’s needed because moving it consumes a lot of power and contributes to latency. But data will always need to travel, and Enlightra, a young Swiss company participating in the Y Combinator technology startup accelerator, believes lasers are the answer.

Enlightra is developing multicolor lasers to transmit data in a disruptive and efficient fashion for data centers. Lasers for data transmission aren’t new, remarked company co–founder Maxim Karpov in a briefing with EE Times. But current laser technologies are approaching their limits in terms of achievable data rates and energy efficiency.

With data centers globally exchanging 300 exabytes of data per month using lasers, the projected power consumption of data centers is expected to grow to consume one–fifth of the total world power supply by 2025.

“On average per day, all data centers in the world transmit about 10 million terabytes of data, and they have to run a lot of networking equipment for that,” Karpov said. He ten explained it will become increasingly challenging to efficiently scale the network in current data centers utilizing electrical packet switches as data rates grow due to the slowdown of Moore’s Law.

To address this data growth and energy usage, Enlightra has developed multicolor lasers for high–capacity data transmission and optical computing. These lasers are based on microcomb technology, which Karpov and co–founder John Jost have been spearheading for the past seven years as academic researchers.

Because one microcomb can replace hundreds of high–quality lasers used in today’s optical communications while being up to 10x more energy efficient, it’s possible to achieve a 30–fold increase in data transmission rates at the same device size, Karpov said.

Enlightra’s optical microcombs are implemented in the form of compact modules designed to replace the lasers currently used in data centers. The two core components of the microcomb technology are a specially designed structure on a silicon chip and a single laser that are packaged together and subjected to special laser techniques.

Picture of Elightra's microcomb technology
The two core components of Enlightra’s microcomb technology are a specially designed structure on a silicon chip and a single laser that are packaged together and subjected to special laser techniques. (Source: Enlightra) (click image to enlarge)

The light of the initial laser is converted into tens to hundreds of laser lines at new wavelengths, each of which is suitable for optical communication, Karpov said. “Instead of shining at the single laser tower and transmitting the data, our laser shines at multiple colors. It essentially can transmit multiple parallel data streams at the same time using a single optical fiber.”

Along with many colleagues, Karpov has already published research findings in Nature Communications, outlining how optical circuit switches (OCSes) based on tunable lasers and arrayed waveguide grating routers are quite promising due to the use of a passive core. The research demonstrates how ultrafast OCSes based on a microcomb and semiconductor optical amplifiers (SOAs) switch between wavelengths at nanosecond (ns) timescales to deliver high bandwidth, low network latency, and an energy–efficient and scalable data center network.

Since then, Karpov said, it became apparent there was interest in the company’s “turnkey” lasers, including purchase orders, and Enlightra has tested prototypes in collaboration with Microsoft Research as well as Mercer University.

Karpov joined forces with Jost about 18 months ago and is optimistic about the long–term potential for lasers when it comes to improving data transmissions, including going as far as replacing PCIe, even at small distances because of their speed and power consumption.

“They are not as limited as electronics,” Karpov said.

Gary Hilson is a general contributing editor with a focus on memory and flash technologies for EE Times.

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