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Intel primes market for silicon photonics to lift data centre interconnect speeds

Aims to replace copper with fibre optics
Mon May 19 2014, 17:03
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INTEL WILL LAUNCH its silicon photonics interconnect technology soon, and has hinted it could be as early as this autumn.

Referred to as a "new era of optics" by Intel's business development director for the technology Jeff Demain at an event in London today, silicon photonics looks to increase the bandwidth in data centre networks and servers alike by replacing copper connections with fibre optics. It also aims to clean up the complexity in the data centre by reducing the amount of cabling needed in a network.

Demain said that the technology is set for launch "in the near future". He didn't specify when exactly, but hinted that we'd hear much more about it at the next Intel Developer Forum (IDF) in San Francisco.

When it does launch, Intel will focus on two chief form factors for silicon photonics - a "pluggable" one such as the MXC connector it developed in partnership with Corning, and an embedded one that can be mounted on the motherboard to provide high-speed optical links directly from the processor.

"We're going to print optical devices in silicon now, which means that we have all that high volume capability available, so it's a new era of optics where the technology gets everywhere. It gets into the car, it gets into the server, it gets into the TV," he said.

Saying that he thinks this is the way optics will go long term, Demain explained that as bandwidth increases, driving a signal from wherever your electrical device is on the board to the edge of the board to go into the optics becomes a challenge, and 25Gbps is a very common next bandwidth target.

"At this speed, even going nine inches is a challenge, so now we make it possible to put the optics right next to the driving device," he added.

According to Demain, Intel will launch both form factors, showing off an optical module designed to drop into a motherboard connector like a processor does. This module interfaces to a standard optical fibre rather than the alternative of using waveguides embedded in the motherboard, which Intel regards as a less flexible option.

The optics module itself is protocol agnostic, and can be used as a conduit for optical distribution of PCI Express (PCIe), the Quickpath Interconnect (QPI) used to link Intel processors with the outside world, or Ethernet.

One of the use cases Intel is promoting silicon photonics for is to replace existing Ethernet transceiver modules in data centre switches, a move it has already begun with the launch of the 100G CLR4 Alliance in April.

However, with its MXC connector set to offer a cost-effective way of carrying up to 1.6Tb over distances of hundreds of metres, data centres can even do away with the top of rack (TOR) switch and flatten out the network topology, Demain said.

Intel thinks that the market is ready for its optics technology, which allows it to combine the light generating or "lasing" material with the on-chip silicon circuitry in a single manufacturing process, because "data centres are growing" and it will "address the cabling nightmare". µ


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