Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Cloud of Nations
Our world has been transformed by photonics. Our government, businesses and many of our personal activities are assisted or managed by what has been termed a “cloud” based infrastructure of computers, servers and a global communications network enabled by advanced photonic devices, lasers and fiber optics.  (Students: Click on the blue TDJ logo above for more on advanced photonics; become a scientist or engineer and help design our photonic future)  It can be argued that in addition to the physical world, governments and society also maintain a shadow, hyperspace existence in the cloud. The continued research, development and evolution of these technologies is integral to the growth of our economy, society and national defense. In recognition of this significance, SPIE, (The International Society for Optics and Photonics), OSA (The Optical Society), LIA (Laser Institute of America), IEEE Photonics Society and the American Physical Society have teamed to form the National Photonics Initiative (NPI). The NPI has embarked on a campaign to gain visibility with our government, key funding agencies and other industry partners to:

• Drive funding and investment in areas of photonics critical to maintaining US competitiveness and national security.

• Develop federal programs that encourage greater collaboration between US industry, academia, and government labs.

• Increase investment in education and job training programs.

• Expand federal investments supporting university and industry collaborative research.

• Collaborate with US industry to review international trade practices.

The discussion points above were excerpted from the NPI's recent white paper. For a more detailed description of the NPI agenda visit [1]

Photonic technologies have made a major impact on our society, simultaneously enabling advanced capabilities in computing, communications, manufacturing and their disruptive derivatives. Disruptive derivatives can vary in magnitude, yielding both laser guided weapons and unexpected video calls on your smart phone. For the purpose of this article, I will briefly review the history and development of the significant photonic technologies which have enabled what we now call the “cloud” and discuss some of the social-political ramifications.

The Development of the Laser

The fundamental physics behind the laser were theorized by Albert Einstein and Max Plank. Their theories were later confirmed by Rudolph W. Leydenburg, Valentin A. Fabrikant, Willis E. Lam and R.C. Retherford. In later years Charles Hard Townes developed the MASER (Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) a microwave amplifier, and later at Bell Laboratories worked with Arthur Leonard Schalow to conceptually define infrared and optical lasers. In 1958 Bell Labs applied for a patent on an optical MASER based on their work. At Columbia University Gordon Gould was conducting graduate work on thallium emissions and in November 1957 coined the acronym LASER to define Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation. Conducting concurrent competitive research, Theodore H. Maiman operated the first solid state flash lamp pumped 694 nanometer synthetic ruby LASER at Hughes Research in Malibu California on May 16, 1960. [2]

The Fiber of the Cloud

Ten years later in 1970, Corning, Inc. announced that researchers Robert D. Maurer, Donald Keck, Peter C. Schultz, and Frank Zimar had developed and tested an optical fiber with a low optical attenuation of 17 dB per kilometer by doping silica glass with titanium. After conducting additional research they later produced a fiber with an attenuation of only 4 dB/km, using germanium oxide as the core dopant. This low loss quality over longer distances made fiber optic cable practical for telecommunications and networking. Corning became the world's leading manufacturer of optical fiber. [3]  

Continued improvements in fiber-optic materials have reduced line losses and capacity is being further optimized by utilizing multi-wavelength lasers for data transmission.  In 1990, Bell Laboratories transmitted a 2.5 Gb/s signal over a distance of 7,500 km without repeater regeneration by utilizing a soliton laser and an erbium-doped fiber amplifier.  In 1998, AT&T researchers transmitted 100 simultaneous optical signals, each at a data rate of 10 gigabits per second over a distance of 400 km utilizing dense wavelength-division multiplexing (DWDM) technology, allowing multiple wavelengths to be combined into one optical signal.  This technique increased the total data rate on one fiber to one terabit per second. [3A]

Our Global Photonic Schematic

Today, the backbone of our global communication system is comprised of an interconnected fiber optic cable infrastructure spanning the oceans, continents and civilized peripheries. The first undersea cable networks laid by ships supported telegraphy only, later evolving and expanding to accommodate voice communications via telephone. Network traffic was limited by the number of conductor pairs in the cables and long distance communication was sometimes problematic. Electronic relays were required to maintain call quality over long distances and troubleshooting was challenging as transoceanic cables lying on the sea bottom were difficult to locate, retrieve and repair. Over time, copper conductors were replaced with fiber optic cables and the communications revolution we are witnessing today began in earnest.  The AT&T Tech Channel features an informative video describing the evolution of the undersea fiber optic cable system [4] currently connecting our world.  Today there are over 321 major cables connecting the continents [5] (most under the sea) providing audio, high definition video and data transmission for our global community. Access to this advanced network can be had for the price of a smart phone. Utilizing services like Apple's FaceTime, Google Voice or Microsoft's Skype, it's possible to make real time two way video calls to friends, relatives or businesses almost anywhere on the Earth. This connectivity extends to most of the 3G and 4G cellular networks as well as the Wi-Fi systems we find at the corner coffee shop.

The Cloud of Nations

The early 1980s began the evolutionary period in our history in which we saw the rapid expanse of the internet along with the conception and realization of the “Cloud”. E-commerce and the idea of utilizing large data storage centers to strategically manage inventory and facilitate business transactions changed a fundamental business model which continues to evolve. The concept of in-country brick and mortar manufacturing sites and retail store distribution are being rethought every day. The acceleration to a web centric existence has transformed banking, trading, manufacturing, retail markets, personal communications and governments.  How so?

The internet connected cloud enabled by photonics has become the continuum in which multinational corporations and many governments reside. Independent of the necessity for fixed, localized manufacturing and distribution, large multinational corporations and small businesses can participate in an electronic global market place. A company in the US can own factories in Asia which produce and ship products world wide. Similarly, many foreign based companies own large manufacturing facilities in the US simplifying the distribution of their products here. The financial industry has been transformed as the international stock exchanges and banking institutions can now complete transactions in milliseconds or less. The undersea cable system made overnight international wire transfers possible. After business hours, banks in the U.S. can wire transfer large monetary holdings to banks in Australia or Asia where a more favorable overnight interest rate might be obtained (Australian banks typically pay a better overnight interest rate). Having earned significant interest overnight, these large monetary sums can be returned to the originating U.S. bank restoring local liquidity in time for opening business hours the following morning. The evolution in global business and trade among nations has brought our world closer together as an inter-dependent community made possible by the ubiquity of the world wide web, complements of advanced photonics.

Recent history has taught us that idealistic global business models don't always work to resolve disputes.  During the first Persian gulf conflict there was an exodus of Kuwait's displaced population to Europe and the United States. Interestingly, the Kuwaitis took their country with them. With electronic access to their country's wealth and the international banking system, Kuwait continued to function as a country and business entity in the cloud [6] via the web. For the first time in the world's history a nation existed and functioned electronically in hyperspace, untethered from its physical geography. Kuwait's political existence extended to its world wide connectivity with banking institutions, embassies and the United Nations. Similarly, Kuwait's finances and trading activities were all remotely accessible through the stock exchanges and SWIFT computers connecting the international banking system. Many of Kuwait's displaced citizens abroad established temporary residency in Europe and the U.S. aided by the continued financial support of their Kingdom which was fully functional on the web. This impressive logistical feat was managed remotely from hotel suites and conference rooms with laptop computers and direct access to major financial institutions outside the middle east.

Partly Cloudy

We like to think our internet system is fast and efficient, however high speed data crossing the oceans in milliseconds from distant continents at the speed of light are often stalled during local distribution and routing by network hubs which provide last mile connectivity to your home or business. A good example of this phenomenon can be found at fast food restaurants or coffee shops which provide wireless internet service to patrons. Sometimes while having coffee at a local establishment I'll use the wireless service to watch business news often featuring live programming feeds from Asia or Europe. Although this programming reaches the US in a fraction of a second, local network and distribution routers ration the data packets as they time share the program feed among thousands (or millions) of on line recipients. The resulting multiplexing and buffering of the programming can start and stop the video program on your computer every few seconds revealing the latency in the local distribution server as it slows to accommodate everyone, sometimes providing only a few program frames at a time. In these situations some news programming and streaming movies are not viewable and must be downloaded or viewed later on a faster network. Having experienced this phenomenon, I sometimes find myself exclaiming the virtues of 35mm movie film which runs at full program speed without interruption. Much of our wired internet infrastructure has not kept pace with 4G wireless and new 802.11ac distribution speeds and needs to be upgraded.

As compared with much of the world, the US is behind the curve in providing high speed Internet service.  A November 27, 2013 study reported by indicates the U.S. currently ranks 31st place in the world's Internet connection speed rankings. [7]  Current international speed ranking data can be found here [8] as conducted by  In addition we are behind in implementing the new IPv6 internet protocol which will enhance security and network standardization with the rest of the world.  As a technology leader among nations, we can do much better. Some might think this comparison unfair as the United States has a much larger land mass and population making a continual nation wide upgrade of Internet capacities and ISP inter-connectivity a capital intensive proposition. Realistically this cost consideration is not an impediment as our larger U.S. economy and consumer markets will rapidly consume any capacity upgrades made by Internet service providers. An abundant dark fiber infrastructure (previously installed and underutilized fiber optic cable) is readily available for augmentation of existing internet capacity. Rather than reconstruct my thoughts on this subject I will quote myself from recent comments I made while responding to an article appearing on Seeking, an investment newsletter web site.  Thomas D. Jay commentary posted on Seeking September 12, 2013 [9]

“Demands for Internet bandwidth will grow rapidly as new technology comes on line. The new Samsung S4 smart phone and Apple MacBook Air both feature the new 802.11ac wireless standard which operates on both 2.4 and 5 GHz at three times the speed of 802.11n. New 802.11ac routers are now available for commercial and home use. New smart phones and computers will soon get a wireless speed upgrade of 3X. Cable companies will be shifting strategies to accommodate consumers who stream video on the net in addition to those who subscribe to the standard menu of channels on their systems. The move is toward the wide scale implementation (much capacity has already been installed) of 256 bit QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation) providing a greater number of cable channels and capacity. 4K video (4X 1080P resolution) is here now with 16K expected in about 18 months. Kudos to Verizon Fios and Google's 1 Gbit fiber optic system, however Sony is already deploying a 2 Gbit system in Tokyo [10] in anticipation of the need for extra system bandwidth. The US has been far behind in upgrading internet bandwidth and is in need of enhanced server center capacity in addition to fiber-optic distribution networks to homes and businesses. Fios 500 Mbit bandwidth at your home is of no use if the server you're connected to is overwhelmed with the demands of thousands of 20 Mbit subscribers. The price of bandwidth will gradually decrease if network capacity successfully paces growth forecasts. [18] An old programmers' law states that computer programs will grow in size to consume all available processing power and memory. Similarly, streaming internet applications and on line services will grow to consume all available bandwidth. The challenge is to build capacity ahead of the bandwidth demand curve and reduce cost. The principal of Moore's Law should be adapted by Internet Service Providers, by doubling network capacity every two years. Big data and network demand will require it.”  An additional note on QAM:  Where high spectral bandwidth and speed is required, networks usually employ 4096 QAM which has a greater constellation density (see Wikipedia, QAM) [11].

The Need for Speed

Latency in program distribution for both national (the US) and international carriers is problematic. The cumulative wide ranging delays in program arrival time experienced by viewers on the Internet can create an unfair playing field for consumers as well as private investors. On Wall Street, investment firms strategically locate their trading computers and servers as close as possible to the NYSE/EURONEXT and NASDAQ exchanges to gain precious millisecond (or better) advantages in price quote retrieval time and trade execution speed. Investment firms closest to the exchanges have an unfair (but legitimate) trading speed advantage over competitive firms and their investors. While monitoring the media, a slow internet connection can delay the arrival of streamed investment news by as much as twenty seconds or more. As a concerned former trader I've actually confirmed this phenomenon by comparing the arrival time of CNBC's cable broadcast programming with the identical program content streamed on the Internet. Again, the big investment houses win this scenario by employing the use of supercomputers which monitor stocks, market conditions, news events, and other exchanges in real time.  IBM has worked with TD Bank Financial Group to develop high speed computer architectures for use in financial decision making and transactions. [12]  A TD Financial Group computer can monitor markets, quotes, international news, and a wide range of critical investment decision parameters. Programmed with carefully developed algorithms the system makes trading decisions dynamically based on real time data input to the system. Investment firms utilizing supercomputers enable high frequency trading which is frowned upon by some, while many exchanges welcome the liquidity these trading firms provide.

Recently the Singapore Stock Exchange (SGX) Asia's largest bourse operator, expressed interest in attracting a larger number of high speed traders to help bring additional volume and liquidity to their market. SGX has invested over $250 Million in a computer trading platform which can execute transactions in 90 microseconds. Before large scale high frequency trading takes root on Singapore's SGX, trading circuit breakers must be implemented to prevent unforeseen market volatility from adversely impacting the market. Interestingly, high frequency traders have also avoided the SGX as it extracts a transaction fee of 20 basis points (0.2%) for shares traded on the exchange. (Source: Bloomberg News 10/29/2013) [13]

Global Clock Skew

For the purposes of global trading, communications and navigation, it is imperative that clocks are synchronized everywhere on the earth. In addition to navigation assistance, our GPS (Global Positioning System) satellites also provide a time standard beacon, complements of our friends at NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology). You can program your PC clock to sync directly with NIST instead of your network server. On a global scale we observe that light travels approximately 186,282 miles per second and can circle the earth in 134 milliseconds (about one tenth of a second). If we consider the earth as a large computer, the continents might be compared to microprocessors interconnected by our global internet, milliseconds apart. If we observe our immediate, personal photometric sphere of existence, we find that in one nanosecond light travels one foot. How precise must our world be?

Chip Level Clock Skew

In the metrics of semiconductors nanosecond measurements are woefully imprecise and we must calibrate metrology in picoseconds in order to measure the speed of data traversing millimeter sized computer chips. In the semiconductor industry we refer to differences in data arrival time on a computer chip as clock skew. On a real semiconductor device, electrical signals on copper conductors travel at approximately 66-70% of light speed. An acceptable clock skew range approximating 20 to 200 picoseconds (pico = 10^-12) usually provides acceptable device performance but this specification can vary across device types and design. For each tick of the chip's master system clock, billions of transistor gates must be switched on and off in precise unison. A microprocessor operating at a 2 gigahertz clock speed must have sufficient temporal uniformity across the device so that the arrival time of gate switching signals are all within an acceptable time window. If the switching signal's arrival time falls outside this window, the microprocessor and the program it's running will crash. Careful design considerations go into device fabrication technique and wafer processing to ensure product and performance quality. More information on computer chip clock skew can be found in the paper “Skew Variability in 3-D ICs with Multiple Clock Domains” [14] Hu Xu, Vasilis F. Pavlidis, and Giovanni De Micheli, LSI - EPFL, CH-1015, Switzerland Email: {hu.xu, vasileios.pavlidis, giovanni.demicheli}

As clock speeds increase and device geometries decrease, the <10nm design node will pose additional technical challenges in device timing and data throughput. Recognizing this challenge, IBM designed computer chips that are interconnected with photonics, [15] enabling superior, high speed inter and intra-device communication utilizing beams of light instead of electrical signals carried on copper conductors. The evolution of light speed photonic interconnects for on and off chip communication will minimize concerns with clock skew across chips and networks as device structures shrink to critical dimensions (CD) <10nm and become stacked in dense arrays.

Free Space Optical Communications (FSO)

Free Space Optical Communication refers to the use of optical (visible) and the near optical (near visible) spectrum of light for line of sight transmission of communications and data. FSO is advantageous in areas where traditional radio frequency (RF) traffic is dense precluding the efficient use of available radio spectrum. FSO can also enable precisely directed communications by laser providing undetected, low profile communications for military or other secure communications. An FSO device is also a cool way of describing your infra-red TV remote control.

Wi-Fi and now Li-Fi

Recently there has been much hoopla over new computer networking hardware utilizing Li-Fi, a complementary technology to Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity). Li-Fi (Light Fidelity) utilizes LEDs (Light Emitting Diodes) producing visible or near visible infra-red light to propagate data transmissions in place of the typical RF (Radio Frequency) based 2.4 or 5 GHz 802.11n routers that have become ubiquitous. Some time ago I watched a TED presentation in which LED propagation of voice and data was pitched as a visionary concept. The fact is, the semiconductor industry recognized the significance of this idea and put it to work in the wafer fab many years ago.

Wafer Fab Free Space Optical Communications (WFFSO)

In the 1980's a major wafer fab equipment manufacturer provided automated guided vehicles to transport wafer lots and load process tools. The vehicles featured robotic arms and transported wafer cassette boxes. The mobile robots could open an on board cassette box and load/unload a process tool while communicating the wafer lot's status to the fab's Work In Process (WIP) tracking computer. The robots' communications with the fab was achieved with FSO cellular infrared LED clusters which were immune to radio frequency noise and interference from nearby process tools. The high intensity IR LED signals also bounced off the fab walls and ceilings to reach vehicles that were sometimes outside a direct optical path, or in shadowed areas created by fab technicians or equipment. Upload and download of vehicle and WIP programming was easily achieved using the IR data links. RF plasma etchers and other fab tools can create RF interference at their fundamental and harmonic frequencies and sometimes create “birdies” (spurious emissions) all over the RF spectrum. In most cases FSO/IR communications effectively eliminates this problem. The infrared cellular transceivers were ceiling mounted and unobtrusive. Quick visual confirmation of the system's activity was accomplished by “eyeballing” the ceiling mounted IR transceivers with a special IR sensitive viewing lens. Today it's easy to confirm IR LED activity with a smart phone. Most smart phone cameras are sensitive to a wide range of IR LEDs. Point your smart phone camera at an active IR LED (your TV remote for example) and you can see a corresponding bright white spot on your phone's display which is otherwise invisible to the human eye.

More recently it's been possible to operate long distance point to point FSO computer networks using lasers. The GeoDesy [16] wireless, directed laser system was introduced in 1996 and has been improved to provide competitive error free network connectivity without wires or radio frequency devices providing gigabit speeds. Two stationary laser units target each other with narrow directed beams at distances up to five kilometers to create a network link.

The First Cloud Over the Moon

Although fiber optic cables connect the continents of our earth, there has been no such lunar connectivity. However, very recently an earth based laser system was utilized to establish long distance connectivity with a space craft orbiting the moon. In October 2013, NASA's LADEE Laser Communications Demonstration [17] (LLCD) experiment made history by pulsing laser data 239,000 miles from the moon to the earth at a rate of 622 megabits per second (Mbps). The LLCD is on aboard NASA's Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer (LADEE), launched in September from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. The LLCD is NASA's first laser based communication system for use with space craft. A ground station in New Mexico also successfully uploaded data to the LLCD system on board the LADEE lunar orbiter at an error free rate of 20 Mbps. LLCD is the precursor to future laser communications in space. In 2017 NASA plans to launch the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration (LCRD) as part of an expansive effort to advance communications in the space program.

Closing Thoughts

The National Photonics Initiative has established a presence in Washington, DC and is engaging key political figures, government agencies and seeking alliances to pursue policies which can accelerate the funding and development of advanced photonic technologies. Although the NPI is a lobbying advocate for a wide range of industrial photonic applications, the development of fiber optic and laser based communications systems have probably made the most significant contribution to improving our daily lives.  A major subset of the NPI agenda might also include a National High Speed Internet Initiative similar to the government's subsidized interstate highway projects started in the 1960s. The world wide migration to the cloud has altered the landscape of the globe. The concept and coexistence of cloud based commerce and national sovereignty is continuously changing in complexity as borders can be breached electronically with no passport required. We are able to trade internationally while probing a potential adversary's information systems, currency exchanges, and telecommunications. Thus the current debate concerning computer network sovereignty at national and international levels are complicated by the security and intelligence gathering initiatives of the many nations populating the web in a dynamic global market place. The solution set to this concern is problematic, engaging heads of state, and established international law. As Americans we also value personal privacy. Our government security agencies and commercial entities must be vigilant and ensure a delicate balance of national security and personal privacy. In addition to NPI's opening white paper discussion points the National Photonics Initiative must also assist in speeding the development of complementary photonic technologies which will ensure the security and integrity of our communications infrastructure.

The speed of light is sufficient for most of today's technological endeavors.  As we extend our reach further from the Earth with instruments and manned space craft, interplanetary clock skew will become (is) the next challenge. Exceeding the speed of light as defined by Einstein's limit will soon become a priority as our need for speed accelerates.  A quantum level initiative may define our future. In the interim I invite you to join me in supporting the National Photonics Initiative.

Thomas D. Jay
Semiconductor Industry Consultant
Thomas Dale

Thomas D. Jay YouTube Channel 


Corporate or private entities mentioned in this article are the respective owners of their logos, trademarks, service marks and intellectual property. Unless otherwise disclosed, Thomas D. Jay has no financial interest in companies referenced in blog articles or other published media communications. No representation is made to either buy or sell securities. Opinions expressed by Thomas D. Jay are his own. Thomas D. Jay does not employ or otherwise utilize/authorize third party agents to express his opinions, represent his interests or conduct business on his behalf except where formally contractually designated.

Acknowledgments and Reference Links

[1] The National Photonics Initiative White Paper

[2] The history of the laser, Wikipedia

[3] The history of fiber optics, Wikipedia


[4] AT&T Tech Channel, "Lightwave Undersea Cable System"
Courtesy AT&T Archives and History Center, Warren, NJ

[5] Telegeography Submarine Cable Map

[6] Kuwait conducts business in exile 1990, New York Times

[7] Techspot reports world internet speed rankings

[8] Current World Internet Speed Rankings,

[9] Thomas D. Jay Commentary, on Seeking

[10] World's fastest internet arrives in Tokyo, Tech

[11] Quadrature Amplitude Modulation, Wikipedia

[12] "From Gigahertz to Systems to Solutions; Our Industry in Transition", Bernard S. Meyerson, Ph.D., IBM, .PDF Published 2010

[13] Singapore SGX High Speed Computer Trading, Source:  Bloomberg News

[14] Skew Variability in 3-D ICs with Multiple Clock Domains” Hu Xu, Vasilis F. Pavlidis, and Giovanni De Micheli, LSI - EPFL, CH-1015, Switzerland Email: {hu.xu, vasileios.pavlidis, giovanni.demicheli}

[15] IBM Silicon Nanophotonic devices, IBM

[16] GeoDesy FSO PTP Laser Networking

[17] LADEE Laser Communications Demonstration, NASA

[18] Telegeography News Update