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

Intel is readying silicon photonics for use at the motherboard level

Intel is taking the first steps to implement thin fiber optics that will use lasers and light as a faster way to move data inside computers, replacing the older and slower electrical wiring technology found in most computers today.

Intel's silicon photonics technology will be implemented at the motherboard and rack levels and use light to move data between storage, networking and computing resources. Light is considered a much faster vehicle to move data than copper cables.

The silicon photonics technology will be part of a new generation of servers that will need faster networking, storage and processing subsystems, said Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer, during a keynote at the Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara, California, on Wednesday.

At the conference, Intel and server maker Quanta Computer are showing a prototype server rack architecture that is capable of moving data using optical modules. The server uses an Intel silicon switch and supports the chip maker's Xeon and Atom server chips.

The new rack architecture with silicon photonics is a result of more than a decade of research in Intel's laboratories, Rattner said. He said silicon photonics could enable communication at speeds of 100G bps (bits per second), and transfer data at high speeds while using lesser power compared to copper cables. The technology could also consolidate power supplies and fans in a data center, reducing component costs.

Intel's research revolved around the production of devices needed to implement silicon photonics at the rack level, including modulators and detectors. The company is now producing silicon photonics modules that can transfer data at 100G bps, and is offering it to a few clients for testing.

Silicon photonics could potentially redefine server designs, Rattner said. With the high-speed bandwidth, processing and storage units could be decoupled from servers and stored in separate boxes. Once the infrastructure with silicon photonics is in place, server designs could change even more, Rattner said.

Intel is working with Facebook to define new server technologies that will lead to the decoupling of computing, networking and storage resources. The high-bandwidth connection offered by silicon photonics will be key in bringing the rack technologies to reality, and the processor, switch and other modules need to work together on power management, protocol support, load balancing and handshakes to make high-speed data transfers possible.

Critical to this step is "the introduction of silicon photonics in not just the inter-rack fabric, but also the intra-rack fabric," Rattner said.

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

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags intelprocessorsComponents

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Agam Shah

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Edwina Hargreaves

WD My Cloud Home

I would recommend this device for families and small businesses who want one safe place to store all their important digital content and a way to easily share it with friends, family, business partners, or customers.

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?