Intel prepares to use lasers, light to shuffle data between computers

Intel is readying silicon photonics for use at the motherboard level

By , IDG News Service |  Hardware

Intel is already using fiber optics with its Thunderbolt connector technology, which like USB 3.0, shuffles data between host devices and peripherals. At last week's International CES show in Las Vegas, Corning announced Thunderbolt Optical Cables that can stretch up to 100 meters.

Intel is being aggressive with pushing silicon photonics into the data center, said Jason Waxman, general manager of the cloud platforms group, in an interview. He said it could be in use in fewer than five years, but did not commit to a timeline.

There are multiple protocols that could be supported for high-speed data transfers, including InfiniBand, Ethernet and PCI-Express, Waxman said. Intel said it will implement the InfiniBand networking technology inside its chips, which could enable faster data transfers.

It is only a matter of time until copper wires are replaced by fiber optics, said Dean McCarron, principal analyst at Mercury Research.

"Over time you will see the server communication infrastructure -- which includes switches -- to include photonics," McCarron said.

High-speed communication networks use optical technology, and so far the bandwidth in servers was adequate, McCarron said. But with more data flowing through networks, there is a growing demand to crank up the speed over connections, which is where silicon photonics comes into play.

"We're going to keep seeing continued demands for the interconnect. It is a forgone conclusion we will have to go to photonics," McCarron said.

Initial implementations may be expensive, and there may be a need to introduce protocols that could enable high speed data transfers over fiber optics.

"Eventually the signalling gets far too complex, and the move to photonics makes sense," McCarron said. "The motivation is how do you economically get to higher speeds."

Agam Shah covers PCs, tablets, servers, chips and semiconductors for IDG News Service. Follow Agam on Twitter at @agamsh. Agam's e-mail address is agam_shah@idg.com

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