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A data hall inside Google's data center in Hamina, Finland Alphabet/Google
A data hall inside Google's data center in Hamina, Finland

Startup Lightmatter Tries to Speed Up Computing in Data Centers Using Light

It's pitching its silicon photonics technology to hyperscalers, including Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Ian King (Bloomberg) -- The idea of using light instead of electricity in computing has been around for decades. Boston-based startup Lightmatter Inc. believes the technology’s time has finally come.

The potential benefits -- greater speed requiring less power -- are understood. But the approach, known as photonics, has mostly foundered because it’s difficult to design and manufacture the required circuitry.

Lightmatter says it has fixed this problem with a special processor and a fabric to connect other computer components together. It is pitching the solution to big data center operators, such as Inc., Facebook Inc. and Google, which is an investor via GV, venture capital arm of parent Alphabet Inc.

The startup’s technology uses tiny structures called “wave guides” that redirect light. These new components do a lot of the work that is usually handled by wires. Then other chips, known as silicon photonics, turn the light into electrical signals that existing computing gear can understand.

The system can send data between components 100 times quicker than the fastest PC and uses 10% of the energy, according to Lightmatter co-founder Nick Harris. It could also replace the giant spaghetti of cables that data center owners use to connect thousands of computer servers, saving money, he added.

With data centers forecast to account for more than 15% of global power use in the next five years, anything that saves electricity is valuable, Harris said.

Harris also argues that the rise of artificial intelligence and cloud computing has created a new need for photonics. Training AI software requires many processors working together to crunch huge data sets. That means a lot of time and energy is used moving information between processors and other components. The Lightmatter system speeds this up immensely, he said.

“People will pay almost anything to get that,” Harris added.

Lightmatter was founded in 2017 and has 47 employees. With $33 million in venture funding, it’s one of a growing number of chip startups pitching novel approaches to try to win data center business from traditional suppliers such as Intel Corp.

Harris is cagey about when and where his products will debut but said some of the largest tech companies have gone “way beyond” expressing an interest.

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