Life in the fast lane, making the terabit age possible

We want more information and we want it now, so technologists are racing to keep up. On Thursday, Infinera said it will support 5 terabits of capacity on its latest gear, while a startup just scored $19 million to make data flow faster across chips. From the long haul to microscopic hops, scientists are trying to push data at the speed of light.

The long haul

Streaming Netflix (s nflx) movies, real-time high-definition video conferencing and interactive services such as are all changing the way we interact with and use the web. We need more capacity, and we need lower latency (i.e. lag time), and the only way to do that is to add more fiber. Verizon is (s vz) doing its part with fiber to the home and by deploying 100 gigabit per second fiber pipes across the country for long-haul transit, while Google and others are trying to build fiber-to-the home networks in other parts of the country.

At the same time as consumers and businesses guzzle down bandwidth-hungry applications, they’re also tuning into the Internet from more devices. Providers such as Comcast (s cmcsa) have seen the broadband usage rise inside homes as tablets and mobile phones tap into the Wi-Fi networks more often. If we ever get to a point where we are streaming all of our content or keeping all of our data online in the cloud, then we’re going to have to bolster the networks feeding the last mile to the home.

Bringing those massive pipes into the terabit age is behind Infinera’s (s infn) new product, gear that can deliver 10 channels of 500 gigabit per second capacity, or enough to download every single movie that’s on Netflix in 5 seconds. It’s also enough to provide 100 Mbps broadband to every household in Los Angeles, so you can see that as fiber to the home deployments become more common, this will become necessary.

The itsy bitsy hops

Infinera’s gear pushes wavelengths across continents and under oceans, but bandwidth bottlenecks don’t just occur in the broadband pipes, they can occur between the cores and memory on chips. In fact, Infinera’s big breakthrough was that it replaced the electronics on its chips with optics — instead of copper interconnects it uses light — saving time and energy because it didn’t have to convert light back to electricity. That kind of innovation was big for long haul networking, but now it’s becoming more important in all networking as companies try to deliver real-time applications and analysis of data.

The chips those machines run on are getting more powerful through adding more cores, but communicating between those cores on a chip or between chips inside a server requires its own terabit capacity — and light may once again the best way to provide it. Thursday,¬†Skorpios Technologies raised $19 million from Ericsson, (s eric) Nokia Siemens Networks, (s nok) (s si) Cottonwood Technology Fund and Sun Mountain Capital to commercialize a method for integrating photonics onto a chip using standard chip manufacturing methods.

Skorpios isn’t alone in its quest for on-chip photonics;¬†both Intel (s intc), IBM (s ibm) and Hewlett-Packard (s hpq) are researching the topic, as well as scores of scientists inside universities. This is a difficult problem, and it’s unclear how Skorpios contributes to solving it because the company declines to share the details of its technology, but its ability to do so within the existing manufacturing industry set up around making chips is an advantage.

Let there be light

As the Internet expands, and our networking relies more on light to transmit digital information, we’re going to need the same technology inside our computers. Right now, it’s akin to the post office sending mail via today’s vehicles and at some point along the route switching over to horse-drawn carriages. It’s a gap that technologists will close, and the big question is when and what it means for the way we build out infrastructure and applications. Those are questions I can’t wait to see people answer.