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Light at the end of Intel's Silicon Photonics: 100Gbps network tech finally shipping, sorta

Long-awaited tech 'now available in volume' ... kinda

IDF16 Intel is beginning volume shipments of its fabled Silicon Photonics networking technology, which uses light through thin glass fibers to replace copper wires.

This tech can shuttle up to 100Gbps over 2km or more of cable that's just a few millimeters thick, creating a high-speed nervous-system for clusters and data centers. As its name suggests, Silicon Photonics uses patterned silicon to emit and receive precisely aligned data-carrying laser signals. These devices can be fabricated just like normal CMOS chips, meaning they should be relatively cheap and easy to make at high volumes.

The dream is to embed this technology into processors and chipsets so they can shift data directly from their internal buses to external networks.

That's the ultimate goal. Right now, though, we're just being offered discrete transceivers. You can basically whack a load of Intel's PSM4 and CWDM4 Silicon Photonics modules into a switch, or similar, and use them to network with other Silicon Photonics-equipped boxes, effectively running 100G Ethernet between devices. This technology has been in development for about 16 years.

Module ... What Intel's transceivers look like up close

Today we learned that these modules have been shipping to selected customers since June. Microsoft, for one, has been playing with the technology in its Azure data centers, we're told.

Diane Bryant, Intel's data center group boss, showed off one of these podules on stage at Chipzilla's developer forum in San Francisco.

"Electrons running over network cables won’t cut it," she told the keynote audience this morning. "We are the first to light up silicon.”

According to Intel veep Alexis Bjorlin:

Intel Silicon Photonics is now in volume production and shipping in the form of 100G optical transceivers. The products, Intel Silicon Photonics 100G PSM4 (Parallel Single Mode fiber 4-lane) and Intel Silicon Photonics 100G CWDM4 (Coarse Wavelength Division Multiplexing 4-lane) are small form-factor, high speed, and low power consumption products, targeted for use in data communications applications, in particular for switch-to-switch optical interconnects in data centers.

"Today, these products are already being deployed to connect switches to switches in large data centers," Bjorlin added. "In the future, as bandwidth to the server increases, the optical network will connect servers, displacing the copper interconnects that are increasingly limited in reach as bandwidth goes up."

You can find some more info on the PSM4 here, and the CWDM4 here. From what we can tell, these are components for switch builders to create 100GbE devices – they don't come with PCIe interfaces or similar, in other words.

As we mentioned earlier, this tech has been in development for years, and not just by Intel. Uni boffins and businesses, including IBM, have been working on silicon photonics. Meanwhile, of course, networking gear makers like Mellanox have 100Gbps Ethernet hardware that runs over 2km of cable, too. ®

PS: We nicked the headline from our sister site The Next Platform, which has more background on Silicon Photonics here.

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