Intel announced today that it has created a breakthrough data-transfer technology in its labs, using a combination of silicon chips and lasers to transfer data over a fiber optic cable at a speed of 50 gigabits per second.

That is far faster than the maximum possible today with copper wires, which hit their peak around 10 gigabits per second. The new Intel Silicon Photonics Link is fast enough to transfer a high definition movie from iTunes in one second, or to transfer 1,000 high-resolution digital photos in a second, or send 100 hours of music in a second, or to send 45 million Tweets. It could hit the market within five years.

“This is a fundamental technology, perfectly at home in data center applications, high performance computing and at the same time you will see it in set-top boxes, laptops and personal devices,” said Justin Rattner, chief technology officer. “The number of applications possible here rival what was possible at the beginning of the transistor.”

It will take Intel some time to perfect the manufacturing of the device. But it now has all of the necessary building blocks for hybrid silicon and laser components to commercialize silicon photonics. As such, the breakthrough could bring the benefits of silicon chips, which can be mass produced at low costs, with the speed of the laser, which can transfer data over fiber optic networks at fast speeds.

The bottleneck has always been getting data through the pipes. Copper wires that connect computer components together are necessary to transfer data from one computer to another. At some point, some very expensive components convert the electrical data from the copper wires to the laser light that can be sent over the thin fiber-optic cables, said Mario Paniccia, an Intel fellow.

Intel has spent years working on this technology. In 2004, it created silicon modulators that could encode data. In 2006, it created its first silicon laser, a hybrid device. It created the basic light routing systems such as couplers and waveguides to direct the light as needed. It created its last major component in 2008. Now the technology could be deployed by the middle of the decade, Paniccia said.

Right now, the 50 gigabit per second link uses four lasers that transmit data at a speed of 12 gigabits per second over a single fiber link, going from a transmitter to a receiver. Over time, Intel will be able to put 8, 12, or 25 lasers on one chip, sending data over one link. That could lead to links that can transfer data at speeds of 400 gigabits per second to 1 terabit per second.

Right now, there are chips that can transfer data at speeds up to 40 gigabits per second, but they’re very expensive and they use much more expensive infrastructure. As you can see in the photo on the right, the current method is pretty unwieldy, while the silicon photonics solution below is much simpler.

Paniccia said the accuracy of the data transfer is superb. So far, it has been proven to be able to transfer data with no errors for 27 hours straight, which means it can transfer more than a petabyte of data without an error.

Each new generation of silicon manufacturing will improve what the technology can deliver. That’s how, at some point, the technology will be able to use 25 lasers to deliver 1 terabit of data per second. The 1 terabit per second link could transfer the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress in 1.5 minutes.

“We are talking about a huge market potential here,” Rattner said.


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