Intel engineers have created a prototype of an interconnect that uses light rather than copper wiring to speed up data transfer within a system to as fast as 50 gigabits per second.
The breakthrough is thelatest step by Intel to create a light-based technology that would replace copper wiring and electrons to transmit data at significantly faster rates-company officials during a conference call July 27 with journalists talked about as fast as 400G bps-and at longer distances.
The optical interconnect technology could solve a number of problems, Intel CTO Justin Rattner said. Copper wires are reaching their limit in their ability to transmit data, Rattner said. Currently data can be moved at 10G bps over copper wires, and some vendors are pushing into the 40G-bps arena. And with copper wires, as speed increases, it becomes more difficult to move electrons over longer distances.
"We've traded performance over distance," he said.
This is becoming an increasing larger issue as the amount of data that needs to be moved-thanks to the rise of social media and video, among other things-is growing rapidly. Using light to move data will not only significantly increase the speed of transfer, but also the distance.
"Photonics gives us the ability to move vast amounts of data across the room or across the globe at extremely high speed," Rattner said.
Rattner and Mario Paniccia, Intel Fellow and director of Intel's Photonics Technology Lab, both said they expect, should everything continue at its current pace, products with optical interconnects to start hitting the market in servers, PCs and mobile devices in the middle of the decade.
Light already is used in a number of applications. Lasers can be found in DVD players and in fiber optics for long-distance communications. However, for what Intel officials are talking about, a real challenge is cost, Rattner said.
Intel wants to find a way to bring the cost down to the point where it makes financial sense to use it in common electronic devices. That will be a challenge going forward, Rattner and Paniccia said.
"A lot of the costs have to be taken out, or it won't be practical," Rattner said.
Paniccia said Intel researchers "have a good sense of the challenges" of bringing the optical interconnect technology to market. In addition, the prototype proves that Intel can assemble the necessary pieces and make it work. Rattner said that Intel isn't waiting on any new invention to move this forward. All the pieces are in place. It's now a matter of continuing to refine it, putting it into chips and then getting it into the manufacturing stream, a process that could take the next few years.
A number of other companies, including IBM, also are working on photonics.
While Intel is pushing forward with its research, it also has a project under way to create an optical interconnect-dubbed "Light Peak"-to connect a number of devices to PCs that can be up to 100 meters away. Light Peak is designed to transmit data at speeds up to of 10G bps.