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Fiber Optics Light Up The Data Center

For years, fiber optics have been designated for use when connecting networks over long distances. This is primarily due to the fact that, compared to copper wiring, light can be transmitted further at significantly lower power costs.

But when it comes to very short distances, it's more cost effective and energy efficient to use copper or aluminum to transmit and receive electrical signals to represent binary 1s and 0s.

A server in your data center today is made up of processors, motherboards, and memory that are crammed full of carefully mapped wire traces for sending and receiving data. But Intel now believes that the time is right to make a monumental shift in the data center by developing servers that leverage fiber optics rather than electrical wiring, all the way down to the motherboard.

Bandwidth speeds are reaching the point where using electrical pulses as physical transport is becoming increasingly difficult. Since data is moved over copper using electricity, the faster the speed, the higher the electro-magnetic interference. This interference will soon be impossible to overcome, and the only way to push data faster is to switch to a physical transport system such as light over optics. Optical transport is the path of least resistance because it does not suffer from interference problems when transporting at higher frequencies.

Intel has designed an end-to-end data center that uses silicon photonics technology, which transports data from the motherboard, to the rack, and all the way through to networking and storage. By doing so, it allows the data to flow as a single physical medium (light) from source to destination in the data center. Additionally, the same physical layer can be used for multiple datacenter protocols including Ethernet, Fibre Channel, PCI-Express, InfiniBand, and iSCSI.

An Intel video provides more details on its technology.

Besides the obvious speed benefits gained from silicon photonics, there are two additional benefits that Intel is touting, as pointed out in a recent Computerworld article. One is the potential for lower electricity costs in the data center through a combination of more power-efficient hardware and cooler-running components.

Secondly, Intel believes that next-generation data centers will benefit from the fact that components such as server-processing units and data storage could be decoupled and stored separately. Because light can be transported over optical cabling with less interference, components don't have to be placed right next to each other to achieve top performance. Decoupling components can create a more organized and fault-tolerant data center environment.

In case you're wondering, yes, silicon photonics technology is likely to be quite expensive when it's eventually rolled out to customers. But over time, it's likely that the benefits of faster speeds, lower power requirements, and decoupling capabilities will quickly outweigh the cost difference versus traditional components that use electrical signaling. Perhaps it's time to start saying goodbye to your copper in the data center.