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Intel eyes post-Thunderbolt interconnect for 2015

New technology boasts 5x speed boost

A new interconnect technology being developed by Intel could be ready for use by 2015 and will be able to shuttle data between computers at up to five times the speed of its recently launched Thunderbolt technology, an Intel researcher said on Wednesday.

The new technology uses silicon photonics, which combines silicon components with optical networking, to carry data at up to 50 gigabits per second over distances of up to 100 metres, said Jeff Demain, strategy director of circuits and system research at Intel Labs, at a company event in New York.

Intel expects the technology to be ready for use in PCs, tablets, smartphones, televisions and other products by 2015, Demain said. As well as being faster than today's interconnect technologies, it's expected to lower costs because the components will be built using existing silicon manufacturing techniques.

The technology could be used in TVs and set-top boxes to carry video streams at much higher definition than those available today. Image resolution is likely to quadruple by the middle of the decade, when successors to 1080p have arrived, and that will mean more data has to be pushed to the TV.

It should also enable faster data transfers between smartphones, tablets, PCs and peripherals such as external storage drives.

The technology still has a way to go, but Intel showed its progress at the event in New York Wednesday. It showed what it said were working prototypes of the silicon chips used to transmit and receive the laser signals.

It also showed mock-ups of the cables that will carry the data. They were not working samples, and Intel did not show the interconnect technology in action, but it showed how the cables will be thinner than those used for Thunderbolt and USB 3.0.

Thunderbolt, introduced in February, can transfer data between devices at up to 10 gigabits per second. Intel developed the technology with Apple, which offers Thunderbolt ports in its new MacBook Pro laptops. The initial version uses copper wires, but Intel hopes to start using optical cables next year.

Thunderbolt already helps reduce the number of chips and connector ports in devices by supporting both the PCI-Express and DisplayPort protocols. The new photonics technology should support those protocols as well as others, Demain said. 

Thunderbolt will likely coexist alongside the new technology in some devices, he said. "We see them as complementary. It's the evolution of these connectors and protocols as they move forward," Demain said. "Thunderbolt is more than a cable. It's a router chip that aggregates DisplayPort and PCI-Express."

Intel has been researching silicon photonics for some time, as have IBM, Hewlett-Packard and other vendors. IBM has been exploring its use for connecting transistors on chips, rather than just between larger devices.

Before the technology comes to market, Intel plans to combine the transmitter and receiver components into a single chip, and also to shrink the chips to a size where they will fit inside smartphones and tablets.

The silicon lasers can be made using existing manufacturing techniques, which will help keep costs down and is partly why chip makers like Intel and IBM are interested in it.

"We have to use the silicon manufacturing technologies we know," Demain said. "That's what the promise of the technology is. It is based on a silicon foundation."


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