Computer networking researchers at Rice University have a new idea for how to handle the mountains of data piling up in the labs of their fellow scientists around campus:
Create a customized, energy-efficient optical network that can feed rivers of data to Rice’s supercomputers.
The new network is called BOLD- short for “Big data and Optical Lightpaths-Driven Networked Systems Research Infrastructure”- and it’s about to become a reality, thanks to a new grant from the National Science Foundation.
“Advances in computing and sensing technologies have led to a similar problem across many disciplines in science and engineering today,” said BOLD principal investigator T.S. Eugene Ng, associate professor of computer science and of electrical and computer engineering at Rice. “Experiments produce mountains of data, and there is often no efficient way to process that data to make discoveries and solve problems.
“From a computing infrastructure perspective, the challenge goes beyond just moving data,” Ng said. “We also need to develop transformative ideas in the network control software, operating systems and applications so that they can keep up with a faster network. Above all, for this network design to be appealing to industry, it has to be energy-efficient, scalable and nonintrusive to the end user.”
BOLD will take advantage of optical data-networking switches, which have much higher capacity than typical electronic switches that are used mostly in Internet data centers. Optical switches are nothing new, but because of subtle differences in the way electronic and optical switches operate, the two technologies are not interchangeable.
“There’s a trade-off,” Ng said. “Optical networking devices consume very little power and can support enormous data rates, but they must first be configured, for example, by moving microelectromechanical mirrors into position, to establish a circuit. Electronic switches don’t have moving parts, so they don’t have that pesky delay.”
BOLD will be a hybrid network that combines both electronic and optical switches. It will also contain something new: a type of optical switch without the moving parts — and the delays — of traditional switches. These new silicon-photonic switches will be built in the laboratory of co-principal investigator (co-PI) Qianfan Xu, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Rice, who specializes in creating ultracompact optical devices on chips.
“To make use of these three types of technology, we need an intelligent layer that can analyze data flow and demand, all the way up to the application layer, and dynamically allocate network resources in the most efficient way,” Ng said.
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