Intel Bringing High-Speed Optical Network Cables to Data Centers

At the OFC event, the chip maker and partners unveil new MXC optical networking technology based on Intel's silicon photonics.

Intel and several partners, after years of development and testing, are preparing to bring optical networking capabilities to the data center that promise to send data between servers and other systems at significantly higher speeds than copper cables currently do.

Intel officials, at the Optical Fiber Communications (OFC) 2014 show March 11, announced that the chip maker—in conjunction with vendors like Corning, Molex, Tyco Electronics and US Conec—will begin rolling out new cables in the second half of 2014 that will transfer data at speeds of up to 800 gigabits per second in each direction (an aggregate of 1.6 terabits per second), much faster than the 10G bps copper cables typically used in today's data centers.

Intel introduced its new MXC connector technology that is based on the vendor's silicon photonics technology, which uses light rather than copper as a way to more quickly send data between systems in the data center. Corning has been sampling MXC cable assemblies with customers and will be producing them in the third quarter, according to Intel documents.

In addition, US Consec said it will sell MXC connector parts to Corning and other vendors, and Tyco and Molex announced they will build and sell MXC-based cable assemblies. In addition, US Consec has created an MXC certification program.

Optical cables bring a range of benefits over copper-based cables, according to Mario Paniccia, Intel Fellow and general manager of the chip maker's silicon photonics operations. The optical cables are significantly smaller and can send data at 800G bps up to 300 meters, a much farther distance than Ethernet.

In a post on the Intel blog, Paniccia said the new MXC product is "not just a simple connector. It is a core building block for optical (or photonic) communications and will help define the way data centers are built in the future. Why should you care? Because it will help serve up all of what you love about the Web, apps and more much, much faster."

Intel is aiming the technology at a range of data center systems, from supercomputers and rack-scale server architectures to storage appliance and top-of-rack networking switches, all of which could see significantly better performance with faster interconnects. MXC cables hold up to 64 fibers—32 fibers for receiving, and another 32 for sending—with each fiber transferring data at 25G bps.

In his blog post, Paniccia noted recent examples of Intel's silicon photonics technology at work. Fujitsu demonstrated the technology could add storage capacity and CPU accelerators to a 1U (1.75-inch) server. In addition, Intel officials are using MXC cables and silicon photonics as a key part of its Rack Space Architecture for the data center, which offers increased performance and lower costs than traditional data center racks.

Microsoft—which has more than 1 million servers in its data centers—and the Open Compute Project, headed up by Facebook and dedicated to developing higher performing and more energy-efficient data center resources, reportedly are testing the MXC-based cables in their facilities.