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EU Announces World's First Integration of a Photonic Co-Processor in HPC

Materials related to LightOn OPU
(Image credit: LightOn)

LightOn, a company specializing in photonics processing, has announced the world's first integration of its "Appliance" Optical Processing Unit (OPU) in France's Jean Zay supercomputer. This marks the first time that a photonics coprocessor (which transmits and processes information via light instead of electrical current) is integrated in a High Performance Computing (HPC) scenario - and in a Top500 machine (currently ranked 105th), no less.

Materials related to LightOn OPU

The Jean Zay supercomputer will be the first Top500 machine to include a photonics co-processor. (Image credit: LightON)

LightOn's photonics products were first deployed in a data center four years ago, integrating the technology into already-existing computing infrastructure. With data processing requirements booming on account of recent advancements in Machine Learning and AI applications, computing is becoming more and more heterogeneous - and more specialized. This opens the door to ecosystems featuring multiple architectures and accelerators (CPUs, GPUs, TPUs, OPUs...), all working in tandem to deliver the best performance. System complexity does increase, but so does performance and efficiency. One area that photonics processing excels in is COVID research - specifically in Molecular Dynamics Studies, an area of computing which is particularly performant on photonics accelerators due to their incredibly low latency times.

Materials related to LightOn OPU

Specialized coprocessors can give general purpose accelerators a run for their money. (Image credit: LightON)

LightOn's Appliance is an integrated computing unit that's built into a 2U form factor for quick and easy integration. Powered by LightOn's Aurora 2 OPU, the Appliance can reach a peak performance of 1.5 PetaOPS at 30 W TDP. In certain scenarios, that means the Aurora 2 is capable of processing up to 1,900 dense matrix-vector multiplications per second.

LightOn claims its Appliance coprocessor can deliver performance that's 8 to 40 times higher than GPU-only acceleration. However, other photonics products such as Lightelligence's PACE (still in demo stages) have claimed performance uplifts that are hundreds of times that of conventional semiconductor hardware. And because photonics doesn't use electrical current for information processing, there's no Ohmic heating - this means higher efficiency and more palatable running costs.

This is but the first such integration of photonics in an HPC scenario, but it sure won't be the last. It seems AMD was right: heterogeneous is the future. It's just that the future sometimes comes later than expected.