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Intel demos inexpensive 100Gb/sec silicon photonics chip

Breakthrough will speed system-to-system data center links

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Intel has demoed what it says it "believes" is the world's only silicon photonics module that uses a hybrid silicon laser – a breakthrough that should allow such advances as vastly improved system-to-system interconnects in the data center.

The demo of the 100Gb/sec module was presented via a video during Intel CTO Justin Rattner's keynote presentation at the Beijing Intel Developer Forum on Thursday.

The chip incorporates modulators, detectors, waveguides, and circuitry – and that aforementioned laser – all in garden-variety silicon rather than pricey hand-built, gallium arsenide–based photonics modules such as are currently available.

Since integrated silicon photonics modules could be fabbed using existing equipment and tested using a hybrid of conventional and Intel-developed techniques, such speedy modules could be created much more cheaply, and therefore eventually work their way into far more devices and systems.

In a discussion with Rattner at the Open Compute Summit this January in Santa Clara, California, Sun Microsystems cofounder and current Arista Networks chairman and chief development officer Andy Bechtolsheim said of 100Gb/sec photonics, "The whole thing about 100-gigabit Ethernet is that it's not practical until the cost of the optics comes down. The current optics are so expensive that – I don't even know how to put it – they basically inhibit the market."

With the advent of silicon photonics modules such as those Intel demonstrated on Thursday, however, "One hundred–gigabit becomes a very viable technology for the networking industry," Bechtolsheim said, "and it will take off as soon as this is shipping."

In addition, the current 100Gb/sec throughput is nowhere near the top end of silicon photonics capabilities, Rattner said at the Open Compute Conference. "We're not even close to the single lambda speeds, the single color speeds, that we've described in the literature," he said. "We can make those photons go faster, we can put more stuff on the fiber, we can add fiber – so we're scalable in three or four dimensions."

Exactly how scalable? Well, Intel has said that it's aiming at eventual terabit-per-second throughput. ®

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