Intel's Light Peak optical links could arrive in 2010

Intel won't promise when its optical communication technology will arrive. But a fiber-optic company allied with the chipmaker says cables will be done early in 2010.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read

In September, Intel showed off Light Peak as if it were the latest hot idea out of the labs. But the fiber-optic communication technology could well be coming to a computer near you next year, rather than in some distant sci-fi future.

A Taiwanese optical networking company, Foci Fiber Optic Communication, is well along the path of selling Light Peak cables and other fiber-optic components.

"We plan to have our pilot run ready by the end of November 2009, and ready to be in mass production in the beginning of year 2010," said Janpu Hou, the company's vice president of business development.

Foci is not some no-name manufacturer of commodity gear, either. The company supplied the optical networking components used in the Light Peak demonstrations at the Intel Developer Forum in September.

It may look like a regular USB cable, but this Foci Fiber Optic Communication cable is for Intel's Light Peak technology.
It may look like a regular USB cable, but this Foci Fiber Optic Communication cable is for Intel's Light Peak technology. Foci Fiber Optic Communication

Light Peak technology is designed to be a universal connector for computers and other devices, linking not just what USB does today but also monitors and networks. A chip from Intel juggles among the different types of data being sent over the line, ensuring for example that high-priority traffic such as high-definition video gets priority.

If Intel succeeds in spreading the technology widely, it could replace a profusion of incompatible connectors--Universal Serial Bus, FireWire, DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, and Ethernet, for example--on computers and many other devices. And Intel confirmed Wednesday it's trying to standardize Light Peak through USB Implementers Forum.

"Intel is looking forward to working with the industry and bodies such as the USB-IF to make this a standard," said Intel spokesman Nick Knupffer. "It's going to take a couple years."

A 2010 time frame isn't a total surprise. Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner said components for Light Peak would be ready that year, even if he didn't promise any delivery of Intel's chip or computers using Light Peak.

But there's the sticky bit when it comes to timing. If Light Peak arrives in 2010 but a USB standard takes a year after that, early adopters won't necessarily be guaranteed that the Light Peak technology in their machines will work with any Light Peak-based USB standard of the future.

And companies making phones, music players, monitors, cameras, and other devices no doubt would prefer to support an industry-standard incarnation of Light Peak rather than its pre-USB rough draft. Even making a special-purpose early Light Peak device--say, a docking station or hub that provided ports for video, USB, and Ethernet and linked to a laptop via Light Peak--would be an expensive undertaking.

Intel has allies to further its cause, though. Sony explicitly endorsed Light Peak, and one Intel Developer Forum Light Peak demonstration used a machine running Apple's Mac OS X. Apple is a company that exerts strong control over its image, and Intel is a company that chooses its demonstration technology carefully, so bet that Apple is a supporter.

Fiber optics for the masses
Foci's cables use USB connectors, though not actual USB cables, Hou said.

Foci Fiber Optic Communication also supplies this internal fiber-optic line that links Intel's Light Peak data-routing chip to the Light Peak port into which people will plug cables.
Foci Fiber Optic Communication also supplies this internal fiber-optic line that links Intel's Light Peak data-routing chip to the Light Peak port into which people will plug cables. Foci Fiber Optic Communication

One concern with Light Peak is how well optical fibers will hold up to the rigors of the consumer market. Optical networking thus far has been the purview of long-haul networks and exotic data centers, not teenagers carrying grungy backpacks.

Hou, though, said the Light Peak cables will be flexible and strong.

They can be bent into a loop just over an inch in diameter with no problem, he said, and using them repeatedly isn't an issue.

"The cables are quite durable, and can be connected and disconnected for at least 7,000 times," he said.

He was less specific about price, though. "We are trying to bring down the cost to an acceptance level by consumers," he said.

One way to bring down costs is to use plastic fiber, but Foci found that approach produced "poor results," Hou said. "Currently we use bend-insensitive glass fiber with special treatment."

Foci isn't the only company expertise in optical communications working on Light Peak. Among Intel's Light Peak partners are Foxconn, Foxlink, Avago, SAE, Iptronics, Corning, Elaser, and Ensphere, Intel said.

And indeed, SAE Magnetics, a subsidiary of TDK, announced Wednesday it has built early versions of optical modules that can support two Light Peak ports.

From Nobel Prize to the consumer
Fiber optics have been around for more than 40 years. Charles Kao's seminal work with the idea in 1966 led to his award of the 2009 Nobel Prize for physics.

The technology since then has spread more widely, notably these days in fiber-to-the-home Internet, telephony, and television service from Verizon, AT&T, and others. But most people don't directly experience fiber optics themselves by touch even if today's Net would be impossible without it.

One big challenge has been cost. Given the engineering hurdles involved, fiber optic communications have generally been cost-effective mostly where network traffic is very high.

Computers are trending that direction, though. High-definition video demands tremendous data-transfer capacity at high resolutions, and 3D video doubles that demand. People synchronize music and video players with dozens of gigabytes of storage space--and don't enjoy waiting for the process to complete. And people must copy ever larger photo and video files from cameras to computers.

Light Peak is designed to address the challenge. Its initial data-transfer speed is 10 gigabits per second each direction at the same time, but Intel believes that limit can be increased by a factor of 10 in the next 10 years.

Also, like USB today, Light Peak will accommodate electrical wiring so that it can supply power to devices.

One outstanding question is whether Light Peak will rely on having a computer at the center of its universe, which USB does but FireWire does not.

"Something like this comes along only every so often," said Peter Glaskowsky, an analyst at the Envisioneering Group (and a member of the CNET blog network). "There's only that one chance to make it really useful across a wider variety of industries than just the PC industry. I hope Intel does that this time."