Design Considerations In Photonics

As photonics and CMOS converge, will design engineers feel comfortable outside of their respective specialties?


Experts at the Table: Semiconductor Engineering sat down to talk about what CMOS and photonics engineers need to know to successfully collaborate, with James Pond, fellow at Ansys; Gilles Lamant, distinguished engineer at Cadence; and Mitch Heins, business development manager for photonic solutions at Synopsys. What follows are excerpts of that conversation. To view part one of this discussion, click here. Part two is here.

L-R: Ansys’s Pond, Cadence’s Lamant, Synopsys’ Heins

SE: What do engineers who have spent their careers in CMOS need to know about designing for photonics?

Lamant:  It’s hard, no illusion. I had good mentors, including both James and Mitch, so I actually did that transition. Ten years ago, I knew nearly nothing about photonics. It takes having good mentors who can help you. That’s the biggest thing. It’s not enough to just try the software on your own. In addition, having an RF background is very useful in many ways. Photonics is the multiplication of RF. In photonics, you have multiple modes. In RF, you tend to only consider one mode, but a lot of the theory behind photonics is very much a generalization of RF.

Heins: We try to make our photonics flow look as much as we can like our electronics flow. We try to take the last 30 to 40 years of learning in EDA and apply it to photonics. One thing we see a lot is that when people are coming right out of school in photonics, they don’t necessarily have a deep background in how to do IC design. There are a lot of things we’ve learned, like design rule checking, that we now take for granted. It’s like breathing. You’ve got to do it. Layout versus schematic, you’ve got to do it. Even circuit-level simulation. As CMOS veterans, you’d think, of course, you always simulate your circuit before you go to manufacture, but that’s not the case in photonics.

Lamant: Those people actually know photonics, but they don’t know how to create a system. This is a different type of challenge. People who know photonics, know how to make a device. They’re expert at that. But they have no idea how to take that device and bring it to a full system that they can sell. I see that in so many startups. It’s not to make the point for EDA software. They use free software. They use Klayout and all those things that they have access to in the university. But all of those tools are not part of the ecosystem of trying to make a system. They say, ‘We wrote a custom simulator to simulate our ring.’ But the question then is, ‘How do you simulate the driver for your ring that goes with it?’ I see many startups fail because they don’t have that ability to take it from academic thinking to production.

You have the electronics people trying to do photonics, they have some methodology background, and other things, but they have a gap in knowledge. Fortunately, they can get caught up, especially if they’re an analog designer or an RF designer. They can close that gap by talking to the right people. Unfortunately, the people who know photonics do not have the knowledge of how to make a full system out of it, and this is greatly hurting the photonics world.

Pond: I would agree. We have two worlds of engineers who have been coming together over the last decade or so. Those who came from an EDA background — electrical circuit design, especially RF — have probably had the easiest time. We’ve been doing better and better for them. Ten years ago there was nothing. Now, there’s a more traditional workflow that looks more like an EDA workflow. Still, they have a lot to learn. But the workflow, the cockpit, and so on, follows along with the EDA model.

In the other direction, maybe we haven’t done quite as good a job because people coming from a photonics background can be really thrown off by the scale and complexity of EDA tools. My impression, coming from photonics, is EDA tools have been developed over many decades. When that happens, you end up with tools that are incredibly powerful, but you wonder if they’d been developed more recently, maybe things wouldn’t be done this way. There’s a resistance on the photonic engineer side to dive into that world because there’s a lot to learn about the EDA workflows. People from photonics have to embrace and take on that EDA world, because, as Gilles says, it’s necessary, it really has to be done.

Heins:  Now, you’re seeing a ton of work going into how to apply AI to help folks bring these kinds of more complex flows under control. There’s so much to learn, but if AI can help you take care of the plumbing, if you will, you can advance much faster. We already extensively use AI for SoCs or packaged designs where you have tens and hundreds of billions of transistors. Photonics is a different vector. The signal itself is much more complex than electrical. The optimization that you have to go through is much more complex. But AI can help get a handle on that, so as we go forward, you’ll start to see these kinds of complexities simplified for people.

SE: Is there something analogous to error correction/parity checks in the photonics world?

Lamant: That can’t be analogized to photonics, because that’s about knowing the original signal and comparing it to the others. Once you have reconstituted your data, and it’s back to being a digital set of bits, then you have a parity check or different types of things that today have nothing to do with photonics because it’s the physical link. In physical links, you can do retiming or a lot of things, but the error correction happens independently, on both sides.

Heins: Tuning might be something closer to it. If my resonance frequencies are not as expected, can I detect that and then adjust for it? That happens a lot. You could think of those kinds of things as error correction.

Pond: Most of the kind of error correction we’re talking about is just using all the standard methods, whether you have an optical link or a copper link. But there are some really interesting things. We had a workflow, developed between Ansys and Cadence a few years ago on a PAM-4 system, where we did a driver simulation and the photonic link together. You look into shifting the timing of signals to compensate for different effects. If you look at the eye at different locations, it may look completely distorted and wrong, because you’re pre-compensating for an effect that’s going to come later through the photonic portion of the link. That’s one of the reasons why it’s important to be able to do the full system simulation. You can’t just independently optimize the driver electronics and the photonics. They have to be done together, so you can perform the signal correction work.

Heins: You do things like equalization. Dispersion is another one. You get different wavelengths traveling at different speeds, and we compensate for that. At the physical level, there are some corrections that do take place, depending on the kind of system you’re trying to make. If you’re in coherent systems, where path links matter, phase matters, that’s more like trying to make the circuit correct by construction, so that you don’t encounter problems.

That raises another issue, which is manufacturing variances. There, you’re back to doing lots of sensitivity analysis through Monte Carlo-type simulations, parameterized simulations, etc., where you’re trying to get a feel for the sensitivity of your device, to a shift that could occur, either through the manufacturing process or just as this system sits in its ecosystem of whatever’s around it. It’s not quite error correction, per se, but certainly trying to design for that is something we care about.

SE: Any concluding thoughts?

Lamant: There is a lot of wondering and pondering right now, but it’s also exciting. We’ve reached the point where photonics is here to stay and will be part of more and more things. Looking forward, the interesting question is where it will become part of the actual data processing. Sensing is a terrific application for photonics, but I am not totally sold on the actual data processing. I’m not even using the word “computing” here, because processing and computing are very different things. Photonics is probably never going to be doing general computing. It may be doing specialized niche, like a Fourier transform-type of processing, and it needs to be part of a system.

Heins: It comes down to two things. What will really happen with quantum computing? And will quantum computing use photonics? A lot of people are looking at photonics for quantum computing because you can do a lot more of that work at room temperature than at 4 Kelvin or something like that — not all of it, but big chunks of it. If quantum computing actually becomes more than prototypes, and photonics is a big part of that, that could shift the answer. The other big issue in compute is we don’t have memory for photonics. If someone makes a breakthrough where suddenly states can be stored in some fashion, then all bets are off and everything changes again. But at this point, I don’t see anything promising.

One of the biggest challenges we have going forward for the whole ecosystem, in general, is lack of standards in this space, which makes interoperability between tools from our companies very difficult. The signal in photonics is very complex. It’s actually complex math, with real and imaginary parts. There are a lot of extra things that we have to take into account, and a lot of times we don’t even have common nomenclature or agreement on metrics and how to measure things. This is going to take time, but it’s being pushed by customers driving us to work together. For example, chiplets are great for photonics because a photonic IC is a chiplet. But all of a sudden, now you’re in a mixed domain, multi-physics type of environment, and there are some huge challenges to make that all work together. We have a pretty good handle on system functional verification, design-for-test, and all these things in the electronic IC world. In photonics, we’ve got a lot of work to do.

Pond: For me, it’s been exciting. I’ve been doing this for more than 20 years. In 2022, when I saw the first product with fibers actually coming out of the package, that was the dream from 20 years back. It took a lot of effort to get there. Things have been maturing very fast, especially in the last decade. That’s really promising from an EDA/EPDA-type of workflow perspective. The datacoms, as we’ve all said, are proven and not going to go away, given the investment from foundries, which is going to continue and even accelerate. It’s exciting times for all these other applications, from sensing to quantum and so on. There’s a lot of innovation possible. It’s not clear what’s going to be a winner yet and what’s not, but it’s a great time to be in photonics.

Read parts one and two of the discussion:
Photonics: The Former And Future Solution
Twenty-five years ago, photonics was supposed to be the future of high technology. Has that future finally arrived?
The Challenges Of Working With Photonics
From curvilinear designs to thermal vulnerabilities, what engineers need to know about the advantages and disadvantages of photonics

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