Xerox hopes to make optical switches much smaller with a technology called optical Mems, or micro electrical mechanical systems.
A Mems device, however, combines the computational power of a chip with the sensing and directing ability of a mechanical device. A group at Xerox is now working on Mems devices that can move light beams to route traffic around a network.
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Existing networking technology does this with a rack of expensive, complicated equipment. The traffic that flows across a network has to be placed on a particular electrical path.
A Mems device could perform the same function in the optical domain, said Joel Kubby, technical manager and leader of Xerox's Mems group.
Existing optical switches have to convert optical beams to electrical current, then convert those back into optical signals. Optical switches based on Mems devices could work in an all-optical environment, making it smaller, faster and cheaper.
Other potential uses for Mems devices include printing, where a Mems-based print head could replace the expensive parts used to arrange colours on sophisticated printing jobs.
Mems devices may also become part of the solution to the "last mile" effort to bring broadband directly into consumers' homes by replacing the more expensive and space-consuming equipment necessary to route optical signals.
The same technology could also let IT managers access data stored offsite quickly and directly, enabling extremely efficient remote backup procedures.
Tom Krazit writes for IDG News Service