HPE looks to move data between computers at the speed of light

Hewlett Packard Enterprise shows an optical module that can transfer data at 1.2 terabits per second

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is turning to lights and lasers in thin fiber optics as a way to move data at blazing speeds between computers, replacing thicker and slower copper wires.

A motherboard with an optical module, shown by HPE at its recent Discover show, could transfer data at a staggering 1.2 terabits per second. That's enough for the transfer of a full day's worth of HD video in one second.

The data transfer speed is much quicker than any existing networking and connector technology based on copper wires today. It could replace copper Ethernet cables that are widely used in data centers.

Copper wires are also used in connector cables for ports in laptops and desktops, but this optical technology may not come to PCs anytime soon. But just for comparison's sake, the speed of HPE's optical technology far outpaces USB 3.1, which can transfer data at 10 gigabits per second, and Thunderbolt 3, which tops out at 40Gbps.

HPE calls its photonics chip module X1, and it is still in early testing. In the future, attaching a fiber optic cable to computers will be as easy as attaching Ethernet cables, said Michael McBride, director at HPE's silicon design lab.

Ultimately, the connector technology and cables will be used in The Machine, HPE's new server design that focuses on processing by using storage and memory.

The transfer range of X1 is about 30 to 50 meters. HPE also showed off other silicon photonics technology that can transfer data at distances up to 50 kilometers at 200Gbps (bits per second).

Light is already being used as a long-range data transfer mechanism in large telecommunications networks. Intel is also working on silicon photonics modules and is expected to ship them later this year. It isn't clear if HPE is working with Intel on its technology.

Intel's Thunderbolt connector is available via optical fibers, though it isn't as cheap as copper wires.

The optical cables will solve a bandwidth problem for servers. There is a growing influx of data to servers, which need more bandwidth to communicate. While copper wires are largely meeting the bandwidth requirements today, faster optical cables are the next logical upgrade.

HPE will implement optical technology at the rack levels. In the future, the rack may be one giant server with processing, memory, and storage separated into different boxes. Optical communication is an important driver in the switch to a new server architecture.

The optical fibers are cheaper to implement in data centers than in some other environments, McBride said. One optical cable will replace a whole bunch of copper wires and provide throughput benefits.

The current optical cables use multiple wavelengths of light to transfer data.

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