Intel Shows Optical Terabit Rack Connections

Intel MX connector silicon photonics

Intel’s MXC connectors could cut cable clutter and prompt a big data centre rethink

Intel has launched a new optical interconnect standard, operating at 1.6Tbps, designed to allow simplified rack designs and more efficient data centres.

One MXC connector and ClearCurve fibre will carry up to 1.6Tbps of data over 300m, and potentially replace dozens of copper PCI-E cables in a data centre rack, allowing denser stacking and easier cooling of the systems. Developed along with Corning, the new Rack Scale Architecture should make for cloud data centres that are easier to configure and use less energy.

Silicon-Photonics intelClearer racks

As processors get faster, the bottleneck is in getting data on and off the chips, and between equipment in data centre racks. Traditional copper links are reaching limits but optical connectors can transmit higher bandwidth at (obviously enough) the speed of light.

Intel’s silicon photonics labs make use of the optical properties of silicon and silicon oxide which are part of chips – using them to build silicon lasers and modulators to create light signals, and silicon components which transform those signals back into electrical ones.

Combining these elements into a single board, Intel has produced a 25Gbps optical data source. At the moment, four of those on one card make a 100Gbps silicon photonics link, which Intel has put into production, but Intel’s roadmap of shrinking and combining components promises 1.6Tbps MXC links in a few years.

The first application will be in data centres, where today’s copper cables are bulky and obstruct air passages, so cooling is wasteful and inefficient, and server and storage units are constrained by the amount of data that can be sent from one device to another. Potentially, servers and storage could be aggregated into bigger chunks within data centres.

“Data centre operators are not exactly constrained by the existing copper technology but they are very limited in how they lay out their equipment [and] design their data centres,” Andy Lawrence, vice president of research for data centes at the 451 Group analyst firm told MIT Technology Review. “Silicon photonics should liberate designers.”

Beyond data centres, Intel believes its optical connectors will eventually find their way into consumer systems, as well as being shrunk down further to enable links between parts of consumer devices.

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