Intel developing optical connect for laptops, servers

Intel is developing an optical interconnect technology to replace copper ribbons in laptop computers and servers that should be ready for commercialization within three to five years, Justin Rattner, Intel senior fellow and director of the company's systems technology labs, said in an Oct. 19 interview in Tokyo.

The laboratory is also working on an optical interconnect technology for chip packages that could be ready between five and 10 years from now, he said.

"We have built short-range optical links that we believe will be cheaper, less noisy, and smaller than copper ribbons. You can get high-speed signals and you can get rid of the need of having to use copper ribbons," he said.

The optical interconnect technology aimed at laptop and servers uses tiny lasers and fiber-optic cables to transmit data at multi-gigabit speeds over a distance of about half a meter. While Intel has not yet approached PC and server vendors, the company is collaborating with optical switch and network technology suppliers, and is confident that the technology can be made ready for volume production in three to five years.

"What we are looking at is using it to feed display data from the motherboard to the screen, or using it for servers to route high-speed, gigabit traffic in dense server environments," he said.

Another potential application is using the technology to replace serial ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) interconnects, he said.

"Results are very promising. There is a lot of opportunity to move from copper to high-speed optical equivalents. When we have a really solid design, then we will go to the appropriate systems vendors," he said.

The biggest issue with optical connect technology is cost, he said.

Optical communications systems, traditionally used for trunk data routing over thousands of kilometers or in networks across cities, need lasers and devices to convert data in electrical signals to optical signals and then reconvert those optical signals back to their electrical form.

Although they are expensive now, Intel hopes that by the time optical interconnect technology is commercialized, an interconnect could be made for about US$5 to US$7. A laptop copper ribbon costs about US$10 to US$15, he said.

Rattner, speaking at Intel's second annual R&D Day event, said that until recently the company had been focused on how to make its processors faster. But the company's systems technology labs these days is concentrating more on developing technologies to help chips perform more efficiently, and systems talk to each other better.

Apart from replacing copper ribbons in laptops and servers, chip and communications companies see optical interconnect technology, which can transmit data at gigabit speeds as a way around bottlenecks in copper connect technologies between devices and chips, and between chips.

For example, IBM and Agilent Technologies last September received US$30 million in funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop optical-based chip-to-chip communications in servers. IBM is also working with Corning to develop optical interconnect technology for supercomputers.

In Intel's case, Rattner believes it can make optical connect systems for chipsets, the circuitry that connects processors to the rest of the computer, such as the memory and I/O, within five to 10 years.

"It'll come right into the chip package," he said.

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