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Server Room Wiring May Soon Be Replaced by Lasers

Server Room Wiring May Soon Be Replaced by Lasers

by Stephanie Faris on Monday, February 06 6:00

Network administrators have had their collective attention focused on Li-Fi as the next big change for their server rooms. However, a new project conducted by Microsoft and Penn State could provide an even better solution. Researchers are developing a way to replace the wires that cover server rooms with infrared lasers.

Wi-Fi may be replacing wires throughout offices, but server administrators are still challenged to make their data centers and server rooms cable free. The lightning-fast speeds that are necessary to power business networks currently require cables, but tech professionals are well aware of all the extra work that goes into cable management. They can spend hours tracking down the source of an outage in the spider web of cables that inevitably occurs.

The Technology

Initially, the team tried radio frequencies, but found that the beams become wider at shorter distances. They decided instead to go with a narrow infrared beam and found they had no interference and there was no limit to the number of connections or the quality of those connections. Infrared wavelengths already exist in fiber optic cables, so this technology isn t entirely new, only the delivery of it.

The technology is called Firefly, short for Free-space optical Inter-Rack nEtwork with high FLexibilitY (Firefly). It uses infrared lasers that communicate with receivers placed on top of data center racks. The lasers can be adjusted to interact with receivers no matter where they re placed in a server room. However, by being placed atop racks, the receivers minimize interference, since workers will be walking around much lower than the beam s trajectory.

How It Works

Today s data centers often have hundreds of cables, creating bottlenecks that disrupt network traffic. Laser-based data centers would eliminate those bottlenecks and give server administrators the flexibility they need to make changes on a regular basis. The researchers say this method could even reduce the number of servers needed, which helps with the cooling issues many server rooms have. Additionally, lasers have the capacity to deliver 10 gigabits per second of data. Fiber optics can only deliver one gigabit per second.

In a demonstration, the lead researcher created a 1550-nanometer infrared signal using a laser, which underwent the process of multiplexing. With multiplexing, multiple signals are combined into one in order to channel them into one resource. The beam was directed through a lens. Another lens was placed approximately 50 feet away, along with diode receivers and small mirrors were added to allow someone to direct the signal. Both ends of the signal can send and receive data. The prototype cost $20,000 and reached the 10-gigabit goal.

The demand for more energy-efficient data center solutions is driven by the fact that by 2020, experts estimate that data centers will use 140 billion kilowatts of electricity per hour. The flexibility that lasers would bring to the server room would help IT professionals reconfigure their servers so that they use less energy, eliminating those that aren t in use and setting up their racks for heat reduction. More testing of Firefly is needed before it starts appearing in data centers across the globe.

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