If you think your data centre is too crowded, pay attention to researchers at Xerox, who hope to make optical switches much smaller than today’s devices. The secret lies in a technology called optical MEMS, or micro-electrical-mechanical systems.
Silicon transistors grow smaller and faster by the hour, it seems, based on the power of new chips. But chips can’t move objects or sense a change in the environment. They are essentially extremely powerful calculators.
A MEMS device, however, combines the computational power of a chip with the sensing and directing ability of a mechanical device. And now a group at Xerox is working on MEMS devices that can move light beams in order to route traffic around a network.
Current networking technology does this with a rack of expensive, complicated equipment, says Joel Kubby, technical manager and leader of Xerox’s MEMS group. And the traffic that flows across a network has to be placed on a particular electrical path, he notes. A MEMS device could perform the same function in the optical domain, Kubby claims.
Optical switches exist today, but they have to convert optical beams to electrical current, then convert those back into optical signals. Optical switches based on MEMS devices could work in an all-optical environment, thereby satisfying the three magic requirements for new hardware: Make it smaller, faster and cheaper.
Other potential uses for MEMS devices include printing, where a MEMS-based print head could replace the expensive parts currently used to arrange colours on sophisticated printing jobs. MEMS devices may also become part of the solution to the “last mile” effort to bring broadband pipes directly into consumers’ homes by replacing the more expensive and space-consuming equipment necessary to route optical signals. The same technology could also let IT managers access data stored offsite quickly and directly, enabling extremely efficient remote backup procedures.
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