August 21, 2013, 1:05 PM — Intel has been working on high-speed optical interconnections for next-generation servers for some time, and next month is the coming out party. At the upcoming Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco in September, the company will introduce the technology in at least one session.
A session at IDF called "MXC – The Next Generation Optical Connector" will be led by two engineers from Corning Cable Systems along with an Intel engineer to discuss MXC, which uses silicon photonics and a new fiber technology.
The new fiber technology is called Corning ClearCurve LW and it will allow optical signals to go over 300 meters at 25Gb/s. The MXC technology can carry up to 1.6Tb/sec per lane and its connector is smaller than the connectors used today.
The session will cover existing optical connectors and issues surrounding them, design goals for MXC, benefits of MXC over other optical connectors, and the MXC schedule.
Most network interconnects are done over copper wire. There are some optical connectors used in data centers but they are based on designs from the mid-1980s. Intel and Corning have been working on this for at least two years, researching into things like silicon-based photonic devices, modulators and detectors using low-cost silicon.
Silicon photonics is cheaper than other optical processes because it uses inexpensive silicon, and data is turned into colors for high speed, low power transfer over the fiber optic cable. With servers getting more and more spread out, especially in supercomputing, moving data around quickly is more vital than the processor speed. Oftentimes, the processor is waiting for the data it needs to show up.
Intel already has experience in this area with the Light Peak project that was supposed to replace copper wire in high-speed video and USB connections. Apple adopted it under the brand name of Thunderbolt, but thus far, no other OEM will touch it. That's because Thunderbolt is pricey and USB has crept up in speed and is just good enough for most people. The just-approved USB 3.1 standard will double USB speeds to 10Gbit/sec and it's a lot cheaper than Thunderbolt.
However, it's not a fair comparison, as Thunderbolt was used in consumer devices, and they are price sensitive, while MXC is clearly targeting enterprise servers, who won't be as picky if a few I/O ports cost a little more in a server that runs six figures.