Intel proposes new standard to light up data transfers

Intel is proposing MXC as the new optical interconnect

Intel's MXC session details

Intel's MXC session details

Intel is looking to use light and lasers to shuffle data faster among servers, and is proposing a new optical interconnect, MXC, that could change the way servers are implemented in data centers.

The chip maker is pitching MXC as a "next-generation optical connector" that could be a big step in standardizing optical technology and ultimately help bring it to servers faster.

Light provides high-bandwidth connections that are much faster than older electrical wiring technology found in most computers today.

The optical interconnect "can carry up to 1.6 terabits per second and is smaller than the connectors used today," Intel said in a brief description of an upcoming session on MXC on its website for the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco, slated for Sept. 10 to 12. Optical signals will also be able to go more than 300 meters and provide swift transfer rates, according to the session notes.

The chip maker will share more information about MXC at IDC. Intel started working on the technology with Corning Cable Systems two years ago.

Intel declined to comment on MXC specifics.

Intel has been developing technology that could enable data transfers over light pulses. Its earliest take on optical technology was the Thunderbolt interconnect, designed to shuffle data between host PCs and external peripherals at speeds of up to 10G bps. Intel also announced Thunderbolt 2, which will double that transfer rate and is due for release in the coming months.

Intel has also researched silicon photonics for more than a decade with the intention to push the technology into the data center. In January the company said optical modules would be implemented at the motherboard and rack levels for faster data movement among storage, networking and computing resources.

At Facebook's Open Compute Summit in January, Intel showed silicon photonics modules that could transfer data at 100G bps. At the same event, Quanta Computer showed a prototype server rack architecture capable of moving data using optical modules. The server used an Intel silicon switch and was capable of working with Intel's Xeon and Atom server chips.

It is unlikely that MXC would immediately replace a highly established networking technology like Ethernet, said Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst at Insight 64.

The challenge with optical interconnects is to get something that is low cost and highly reliable, Brookwood said.

That issue is reflected in Thunderbolt, where the optical cables are more expensive than the copper cables.

"Where this comes in handy is when you start deploying servers in mega data centers where you want to have thousands of servers," Brookwood said.

Optical interconnects like MXC could first make it at the rack level, Brookwood said. When servers are replaced, the older interconnects at the rack level could be replaced by optics, which could then be connected to Ethernet switches at the top of the rack for wider data-center communication.

Through silicon photonics, Intel also hopes to change the way servers are implemented in data centers. The high-bandwidth connection offered by light could decouple processing and storage units into separate boxes, while also reducing component costs by consolidating fans and power supplies. But the processor, switch and other modules would need to work together on power management, protocol support, load balancing and handshakes to make high-speed data transfers possible.

Intel has said that optical modules could support multiple protocols for data transfers, including InfiniBand, Ethernet and PCI-Express. Thunderbolt currently supports PCI-Express 2.0 and DisplayPort.

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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