Intel has revealed the development of an integrated, end-to-end, silicon-based optical system that it says may drive down the cost of high-speed, error-free interconnects to under a dollar per port and it leaves Chipzilla’s Light Peak interconnect in the dust. The prototype “concept vehicle” is essentially a two-chip system that can transmit and receive data at 50Gbps a speed, that’s fast enough to download 45 million tweets in under a second.
“Optical as a technology is coming, and its coming very fast,” the director of Intel’s Photonics Technology Lab, Mario Paniccia, told reporters Tuesday morning.
“Why are we talking about photonics at all?” Intel CTO and director of Intel Labs Justin Rattner asked rhetorically. Then he answered himself: “The fundamental issue is that electronic signaling relying on copper wire is reaching its physical limits. At speeds of 10Gbps and higher, it becomes very difficult to move electrons fast enough with high enough signal strength to reach any significant distance.”
According to The Register, a transmitter chip uses four hybrid silicon lasers running at 12.5Gbps each and operating at different wavelengths, modulates them into data-carrying pulses, then multiplexes those pulses into a single stream of light that it beams through an optical-fiber cable. At the other end of that cable, a receiver chip demuliplexes the photon stream, distributes it to four germanium-silicon photoreceptors, which convert the pulses to electrical digital signals and sends that data on its way.
Intel’s integrated silicon-based optical interconnect is also highly immune to errors. “We put the modules together, we had the link running and it ran for about 27 hours with zero errors,” said Paniccia. “It’s not a product, but the stability of this, the performance of this, is exceptional.” Paniccia said that Intel’s goal is to spread optical interconnects throughout the computing ecosystem — from HPC to handhelds.