Intel's Photonic Architecture Looks to Replace Copper with Fiber in Servers

Over the course of the past few years, you might have noticed that component vendors have been working hard to shed some old technology that's been keeping us from progress. We've seen EFI replace the typical BIOS, for example, and GPT become more prevalent to allow us to use hard drives greater than 2.2TB in size. Next up? "Silicon Photonics", a technology that Intel has been working on for the past decade that helps make the word "bottleneck" non-existent where inter-system communications are concerned.

At the Open Compute Summit, being held in Santa Clara this week, we've already learned of the "Open Compute Platform" that AMD and others are touting - hoping to improve interoperability between servers and their CPUs. Intel's announcement is equally interesting however, if not even a bit more important. With its Silicon Photonics technology, the company would be replacing some copper found in current motherboards with thin fiber - improving bandwidth to 100Gbps with the help of lasers (by comparison, today's super-fast SATA 3.0 bus is spec'd at 6Gbps).

At the get-go, this technology is focusing on servers - not surprisingly. The server market is jam-packed with customers who don't only "want" to eke the most performance from their setups, but need to. They also need to take upgradeability into consideration. That's another area where Intel is making strides.

With its design, Intel plans to separate certain sub-systems from the motherboard itself, such as storage, networking and compute, and have those settle in on daughter cards. These cards would then be able to be shared between multiple servers in the same rack - important for load-sharing. Because of the sheer capabilities of the fiber connections, any other piece of hardware in a rack will quicker become the bottleneck. In the future, Intel could likely increase the density of its fiber strands - along with increasing of the laser's intensity - to increase the amount of bandwidth that can be pushed along the line.

"Fiber" is a word that gets tossed around an awful lot, so when I saw it associated with an Intel press release, I didn't think too much of it. But in truth, this is extremely interesting technology. It's going to be fun to see it in action, and especially intriguing to wonder when its roots will trickle down to our desktops and notebooks.