Silicon photonics is driving the development of application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), enabling much greater I/O bandwidth density and reducing power consumption, according to Cisco. 

Speaking at the Cisco Tech Editor's Conference in San Jose, Rob Lloyd, President of Sales and Development, said that one of the things that makes Cisco believe that it can lead in the development in the Internet of Everything is that it makes ASICs – the processors that sit underneath the products it delivers. 

He said that $150 million of development went into the company's new 3850 unified switch, which allows a user to have both an Ethernet connection and a wireless connection in the same platform. The ASIC that the switch runs on was developed by Cisco and is completely programmable.

“The ability to create a single security policy and access policy is entirely based on programming that ASIC, and the ability to write software that runs directly on the platform,” said Lloyd. “That's going to differentiate Cisco in this Internet of Everything, as those ASICs proliferate.”

Dave Ward, VP of Engineering and CTO of Architecture, went on to detail some of the work that Cisco is doing around silicon photonics.

Future progress in computer technology (and the continuation of Moore's Law) is becoming increasingly dependent on ultra-fast data transfer between and within microchips, and silicon photonics is seen as particularly useful, due to the ability to integrate electronic and optical components on the same silicon chip. 

This allows greater density of I/O bandwidth in and out of the chip, because the packages are a lot smaller relative to the I/O bandwidth that is available, explained Ward. This means that more feature logic can also be combined into the chip. 

Silicon photonics also enables a reduction in power consumption by multiple orders of magnitude, because it is no longer necessary to have electrical wires running through each layer of the boards. Instead these can be connected up with fibre, so chip-to-chip density increases.

These developments are of particular significance in the data centre, where the constraints of power and size are most acutely felt. In the past, the optical interfaces themselves have absorbed as much as half of the cost of deploying the data centre, and over half of the power used in that data centre.

Thanks to its acquisition of Lightwire last year and CoreOptics in 2010, Cisco is now able to create much smaller, higher speed pluggable optics that not only dramatically reduce the cost of interface construction but also improve the density and decrease the power required to run a data centre.

“This is now critical as we see the change from 10G to 40G, 100G and 400G interfaces,” said Ward.

Achieving these speeds is only possible by fundamentally changing how many bits can get on and off the chips, and from the chips to the memories, because increasing the size of the chip itself creates massive risk in the manufacturing process. 

“By keeping the ASICs small and by using this I/O technology, the risk of building chips is much much lower. So this is absolutely the most critical piece of ASIC technology,” said Ward.

He added that this technology will be integrated into the next-generation of ASICs in Cisco's high-end products, because that is the only way the company can get to the point where it is building single and multi-Terabit line cards.

“The ASICs are in line cards, the line cards are in routers and the routers are in customers' hands. So it's here now,” he concluded.

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