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​Intel: Our laser chips will make sites like Google and Facebook faster

A technology called silicon photonics has graduated from Intel's research labs into a real-world product to speed up computer communications.

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
2 min read
Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, shows Intel's silicon photonics module at IDF 2016.
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Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, shows Intel's silicon photonics module at IDF 2016.

Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, shows Intel's silicon photonics module at IDF 2016.

Stephen Shankland/CNET

Laser light has made its way into a new product line Intel expects will speed up the data centers at the heart of online services like Google search and Facebook social networking.

After years of research, the chipmaker has begun selling a product using a technology called silicon photonics that builds lasers directly into computer chips. That means communications can take place using light traveling over glass fiber-optic cables that can carry much more data than electrons on traditional copper wires.

"We see a future where silicon photonics optical input-output is everywhere in the data center," said Diane Bryant, general manager of Intel's Data Center Group, at the company's Intel Developer Forum Wednesday in San Francisco.

It's not technology you'll plug into your PC or phone any time soon, but silicon photonics could help you out. That's because data centers packed with thousands of servers are shouldering more and more work -- everything from Facebook's face recognition to Google's language translation. Opening up communication bottlenecks between those servers means new services are economical and existing ones can run faster.

Intel's first silicon photonics communication chips can transfer data at 100 gigabits per second -- roughly 100 times faster than home Wi-Fi under the most optimistic circumstances. A next-generation version will quadruple that to 400Gbps, Intel said.

​Intel's silicon photonics communciation module
Enlarge Image
​Intel's silicon photonics communciation module

Intel's silicon photonics communciation module


Servers' data appetite has been growing explosively, said Kushagra Vaid, general manager of cloud hardware engineering for Microsoft's widely used Azure server infrastructure. Copper cables already struggle to hit 25Gbps with lengths just 10 feet long, he said, but silicon photonics could help the company scale to the next level.

"When we get to 100 gigabits per second, we're going to hit a brick wall," Vaid said. "That's where silicon photonics is very interesting. It's a great way for us to continue that scaling."

Fiber optics are widely used for long-haul communication links like undersea cables. Intel and other photonics fans expect integrating laser communications into chips will lower costs for the technology so it can be used for shorter distances within data centers and eventually inside a computer chassis.

Intel's new module can send signals as far as 1.2 miles -- an immense improvement over copper cabling.

Intel isn't alone in the market. IBM, Luxtera, Fujitsu and Silicon Valley startups are working on silicon photonics, too.