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15th February 2014

IBM achieves new speed record for big data

Researchers at IBM Labs have achieved a new technological breakthrough enabling data transfer rates of up to 400 Gigabits per second (Gb/s) at extremely low power.


ibm chip
Photo Credit: IBM Research


The device pictured above is a new, ultra-fast, energy efficient analog-to-digital converter (ADC) presented this week at the International Solid-State Circuits Conference (ISSCC) in San Francisco. It can transfer Big Data between clouds and data centres four times faster than current technology. At this speed, 160 Gigabytes – or the equivalent of a two-hour, 4K ultra-high definition movie – could be downloaded in only a few seconds.

While only a lab prototype, a previous version of the design has been licensed to Semtech Corp, a leading supplier of analog and mixed-signal semiconductors. The company is using this technology to develop advanced communications platforms expected to be announced later this year.

As Big Data and Internet traffic continue to grow exponentially, future networking standards will have to support higher data rates. In 1992, for example, 100 gigabytes of data was transferred per day, whereas today, that figure has grown to over two exabytes daily, a 20 million-fold increase.

To support the increase in traffic, scientists at IBM Research and Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) have been developing ADC technology to enable complex digital equalization across long-distance fiber channels. An ADC converts analog signals to digital, approximating the right combination of zeros and ones to digitally represent data so it can be stored on computers and analysed for patterns.

For example, the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), an international project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope, will use hundreds of thousands of ADCs to convert the analog radio signals originating from the Big Bang. The radio data that the SKA collects from deep space is expected to produce 10 times the global internet traffic and the prototype ADC would be an ideal candidate to transport its signals fast and at very low power – a critical requirement, considering the thousands of antennas that will be spread over 3,000 kilometres (1,900 miles).


square kilometre array
Image used with permission from Jo Bowler, SKA Program Development Office, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics.


Dr. Martin Schmatz, IBM Research: “Our ADC supports IEEE standards for data communication and brings together speed and energy efficiency at 32 nanometres, enabling us to start tackling the largest Big Data applications. With Semtech as our partner, we are bringing our previous generation of the ADC to market less than 12 months since it was first developed and tested.”

Semtech signed a non-exclusive technology licensing agreement, including access to patented designs and technological know-how, with IBM to develop the technology for its own family of products, ranging from optical communications to advanced radar systems. 

Craig Hornbuckle, from Semtech: “Through leveraging the IBM 32nm SOI process with its unique feature set, we are developing products that are well-suited for meeting the challenge presented by the next step in high performance communications systems, such as 400 Gb/s Optical systems and Advanced Radar systems. We are also seeing an expanding range of applications in the existing radio frequency communications marketplace where high-speed digital logic is replacing functions that have been traditionally performed by less flexible analog circuitry.”


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