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Intel’s Light Peak tech poised to outdo USB 3.0

Nov 5, 2010 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive — views

Intel's Light Peak optical connectivity technology could begin appearing in products in early 2011, according to reports. The technology could offer bidirectional data transfers at twice the speed of USB 3.0.

Light Peak is a connectivity technology being developed by Intel (and strongly backed by Apple) that could prove to be a solid alternative to USB 1.0 and 2.0, and hinder the adoption of USB 3.0. USB 3.0 offers significant data-transfer speeds over the current 2.0, but Light Peak promises faster rates than USB 3.0, according to Intel.

Quoting an unnamed industry source familiar with Intel's work, CNET is reporting that Light Peak could appear in products in the first half of 2011, and closer to the beginning of the year than the middle. Such a move could be a boon to PC makers who have seen USB 2.0 hit the limits of its capability but have yet to move wholeheartedly to USB 3.0, due in large part to a lack of support for it in Intel chipsets.

USB 2.0 speeds top out at about 480Mbps, while USB 3.0 promises speeds as high as 5Gbps. However, Intel officials have talked about Light Peak hitting 10Gbps or more, and with data moving in both directions at the same time.

USB 3.0 is slowly showing up in some devices — including some notebooks — but it's not getting the widespread adoption that USB 2.0 has, thanks to Intel's decision to not yet support it in its chipsets.

In reports earlier this week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs told an Apple user in an email that the company had no immediate plans yet to add USB 3.0 connectivity to its Macs, noting that Intel was not supporting it. Intel does support the eSATA (External Serial Advanced Technology Attachment) standard and FireWire, which is found in Apple's MacBook.

That said, Intel officials have said they still have plans to support USB 3.0, and some reports have that happening as early as 2011, while others peg it at 2012.

Still, Intel engineers are powering ahead with development of optical connectivity technologies. Along with their work on Light Peak, Intel Labs officials said in July that engineers had created a prototype of an optical interconnect that moved data around a system at rates up to 50Gbps (below). It was the latest step in an effort by the company to create a technology that would replace copper wiring and electrons with light to transfer data.

Intel's silicon photonics transmitter and receiver
(Click to enlarge)

Such an optical interconnect technology would solve a number of problems, notably giving the tech industry an alternative to copper wires, which Intel CTO Justin Rattner said is reaching their limit in their ability to transmit data. In addition, as speed increases with copper wires, it becomes more difficult to move electrons over longer distances, Rattner said.

"We've traded performance over distance," he said during a July conference call. "Photonics gives us the ability to move vast amounts of data across the room or across the globe at extremely high speed."

Intel engineers noted a number of challenges facing the photonic technology, including the need to reduce the cost of it, but said it could begin appearing in PCs, mobile devices and servers by the middle of the decade.

Further information

More information on Intel's Light Peak may be found on the company's website, here.

More information on Intel's silicon photonics research may be found on the company's website, here. A related presentation, white paper, and backgrounder, all in PDF format, may be found here, here, and here, respectively.

Jeffrey Burt is a writer for our sister site

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