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Silicon Photonics

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Tackling system design on a data centre scale 

Silicon photonics luminaries series

Interview 1: Andrew Rickman

Silicon photonics has been a recurring theme in the career of Andrew Rickman. First, as a researcher looking at the feasibility of silicon-based optical waveguides, then as founder of Bookham Technologies, and after that as a board member of silicon photonics start-up, Kotura.


Andrew Rickman

Now as CEO of start-up Rockley Photonics, his company is using silicon photonics alongside its custom ASIC and software to tackle a core problem in the data centre: how to connect more and more servers in a cost effective and scaleable way.



As a child, Rickman attended the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures given by Eric Laithwaite, a popular scientist who was also a professor of electrical engineering at Imperial College. As an undergraduate at Imperial, Rickman was reacquainted with Professor Laithwaite who kindled his interest in gyroscopes.

“I stumbled across a device called a fibre-optic gyroscope,” says Rickman. “Within that I could see people starting to use lithium niobate photonic circuits.” It was investigating the gyroscope design and how clever it was that made Rickman wonder whether the optical circuits of such a device could be made using silicon rather than exotic materials like lithium niobate.

“That is where the idea triggered, to look at the possibility of being able to make optical circuits in silicon,” he says.


If you try and force a photon into a space shorter than its wavelength, it behaves very badly

In the 1980s, few people had thought about silicon in such a context. That may seem strange today, he says, but silicon was not a promising candidate material. “It is not a direct band-gap material - it was not offering up the light source, and it did not have a big electro-optic effect like lithium niobate which was good for modulators,” he says. “And no one had demonstrated a low-loss single-mode waveguide.”

Rickman worked as a researcher at the University of Surrey’s physics department with such colleagues as Graham Reed to investigate whether the trillions of dollars invested in the manufacturing of silicon could also be used to benefit photonic circuits and in particular whether silicon could be used to make waveguides. “The fundamental thing one needed was a viable waveguide,” he says.

Rickman even wrote a paper with Richard Soref who was collaborating with the University of Surrey at the time. “Everyone would agree that Richard Soref is the founding father of the idea - the proposal of having a useful waveguide in silicon - which is the starting point,” says Rickman. It was the work at the University of Surrey, sponsored by Bookham which Rickman had by then founded, that demonstrated low-loss waveguides in silicon.


Fabrication challenges

Rickman argues that not having a background in CMOS processes has been a benefit. “I wasn’t dyed-in-the-wool-committed to CMOS-type electronics processing,” he says. “I looked upon silicon technology as a set of machine-shop processes for making things.”

Looking at CMOS processing completely afresh and designing circuits optimised for photonics yielded Bookham a great number of high-performance products, he says. In contrast, the industry’s thrust has been very much a semiconductor CMOS-focused one. “People became interested in photonics because they just naturally thought it was going to be important in silicon, to perpetuate Moore’s law,” says Rickman.

You can use the structures and much of the CMOS processes to make optical waveguides, he says, but the problem is you create small structures - sub-micron - that guide light poorly. “If you try and force a photon into a space shorter than its wavelength, it behaves very badly,” he says. “In microelectronics, an electron has got a wavelength that is one hundred times smaller that the features it is using.”

The results include light being sensitive to interface roughness and to the manufacturing tolerances - the width, hight and composition of the waveguide. “At least an order of magnitude more difficult to control that the best processes that exist,” says Rickman.

“Our [Rockley’s] waveguides are one thousand times more relaxed to produce than the competitors’ smaller ones,” he says. “From a process point of view, we don’t need the latest CMOS node, we are more a MEMS process.”


If you take control of enough of the system problem, and you are not dictated to in terms of what MSA or what standard that component must fit into, and you are not competing in this brutal transceiver market, then that is when you can optimise the utilisation of silicon photonics 


Rickman stresses that small waveguides do have merits - they go round tighter bends, and their smaller-dimensioned junctions make for higher-speed components. But using very large features solves the ‘fibre connectivity problem’, and Rockley has come up with its own solutions to achieve higher-speed devices and dense designs.

“Bookham was very strong in passive optics and micro-engineered features,” says Rickman. “We have taken that experience and designed a process that has all the advantages of a smaller process - speed and compactness - as well as all the benefits of a larger technology: the multiplexing and demultiplexing for doing dense WDM, and we can make a chip that already has a connector on it.”


Playing to silicon photonics’ strengths

Rickman believes that silicon photonics is a significant technological development: “It is a paradigm shift; it is not a linear improvement”. But what is key is how silicon photonics is applied and the problem it is addressing.

To make an optical component for an interface standard or a transceiver MSA using silicon photonics, or to use it as an add-on to semiconductors - a ’band-aid” – to prolong Moore’s law, is to undersell its full potential. Instead, he recommends using silicon photonics as one element - albeit an important one - in an array of technologies to tackle system-scale issues.

“If you take control of enough of the system problem, and you are not dictated to in terms of what MSA or what standard that component must fit into, and you are not competing in this brutal transceiver market, then that is when you can optimise the utilisation of silicon photonics,” says Rickman. “And that is what we are doing.” In other words, taking control of the environment that the silicon sits in.


It [silicon photonics] is a paradigm shift; it is not a linear improvement 


Rockley’s team has been structured with the view to tackle the system-scale problem of interconnecting servers in the data centre. Its team comprises computer scientists, CMOS designers - digital and analogue - and silicon photonics experts.

Knowing what can be done with the technologies and organising them allows the problems caused by the ‘exhaustion of Moore’s law’ and the input/output (I/O) issues that result to be overcome. “Not how you apply one technology to make up for the problems in another technology,” says Rickman.


The ending of Moore’s law

Moore’s law continues to deliver a doubling of transistors every two years but the associated scaling benefits like the halving of power consumed per transistor no longer apply. As a result, while Moore’s law continues to grow gate count that drives greater computation, the overall power consumption is no longer constant.

Rickman also points out that the I/O - the number of connections on and off a chip - are not doubling with transistor count. “I/O may be going from 25 gigabit to 50 gigabit using PAM–4 but there are many challenges and the technology has yet to be demonstrated,” he says.

The challenge facing the industry is that increasing the I/O rate inevitably increases power consumption. “As power consumption goes up, it also equates to cost,” says Rickman. Clearly that is unwelcome and adds cost, he says, but that is not the only issue. As power goes up, you cannot fully benefit from the doubling transistor counts, so things cannot be packed more densely.

“You are running into to the end of Moore’s law and you don’t get the benefit of reducing space and cost because you’ve got to bolt on all these other things as it is very difficult to get all these signals off-chip,” he says.

This is where tackling the system as a whole comes in. You can look at microelectronics in isolation and use silicon photonics for chip-to-chip communications across a printed circuit board to reduce the electrical losses through the copper traces. “A good thing to do,” stresses Rickman. Or you can address, as Rockley aims to do, Moore’s law and the I/O limitations within a complete system the size of the data centre that links hundred of thousands of computers. “Not the same way you’d solve an individual problem in an individual device,” says Rickman.


Rockley Photonics

Rockley Photonics has already demonstrated all the basic elements of its design. “That has gone very well,” says Rickman.

The start-up has stated its switch design uses silicon photonics for optical switching and that the company is developing an accompanying controller ASIC. It has also developed a switching protocol to run on the hardware. Rockley’s silicon photonics design performs multiplexing and demultiplexing, suggesting that dense WDM is being used as well as optical switching.

Rockley is a fabless semiconductor company and will not be building systems. Partly, it is because it is addressing the data centre and the market has evolved in a different way to telecoms. For the data centre, there are established switch vendors and white-box manufacturers. As such, Rockley will provide its chipset-based reference design, its architecture IP and the software stack for its customers. “Then, working with the customer contract manufacturer, we will implement the line cards and the fabric cards in the format that the particular customer wants,” says Rickman.

The resulting system is designed as a drop-in replacement for the large-scale data centre players’ switches they haver already deployed, yet will be cheaper, more compact and consume less power, says Rockley.

“They [the data centre operators] can scale the way they do at the moment, or they can scale with our topology,” says Rickman.

The start-up expects to finally unveil its technology by the year end.

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