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Light Peak: One PC cable to rule them all

Light Peak is Intel's code-name for a new high-speed optical cable technology designed to connect electronic devices to each other in a peripheral bus. It has the capability to deliver high bandwidth, starting at 10 Gbps, with the potential ability to scale to 100 Gbps. It is intended as a single universal replacement for current buses such as SCSI, SATA, USB, FireWire, and HDMI. In comparison to these buses, Light Peak is much faster, longer ranged, smaller, and more flexible in terms of protocol support.

Light Peak was developed as a way to reduce the proliferation of ports on modern computers. Bus systems like USB were intended to do the same, and successfully replaced a number of older technologies like PS/2 and Centronics printer ports. However, increasing bandwidth demands have led to the introduction of a new series of high-performance systems like E-SATA and DisplayPort that USB and similar systems could not address. Light Peak provides enough bandwidth to allow all of these systems to be driven over a single type of interface, and in many cases on a single cable using a daisy chain.

Description

ClearCurve

Optical cables leak light when bent tightly around corners in acute angles. Fiber can be installed with relative ease along existing infrastructure routes like sewers and elevator shafts, where the curves are limited in number and radius. In these types of installations the cable is typically in a form with mechanical armouring on the outside to protect the fiber as well as prevent it being bent too much. This armouring makes it less useful when routed into homes, where it would have to be bent around studs and make short-radius right angle turns where walls meet. Corning claims that the average apartment installation would require twelve 90° bends, by which point the signal would be almost entirely lost.[2] For this reason, most fiber to the home systems end in a utility room or similarly easily accessed point, where the signals are then converted to copper wiring for further distribution.

The same issues also limited the use of optical cabling in consumer electronics and computer markets. One of the few consumer uses was TOSLINK, used to move digital audio around stereo components. In this role fiber was chosen for reasons of simplicity (since a digital audio signal, such as produced by a CD player, can drive the TOSLINK red light-emitting diode directly) and the elimination of ground loops, thereby using light signaling to avoid additional conversions and isolation circuitry. For computer use, the relatively large radius curves meant that fibre was only really useful for external buses, and here they found use only in roles where high bandwidth was demanded; Fibre Channel and some supercomputer networking systems are among the few examples.

In July 2007, Corning Incorporated announced a new optical fiber known as ClearCurve that uses nanostructure reflectors to keep light trapped within the fiber even when bent around small-radius curves. Corning's original market for ClearCurve was fiber to the home market, especially in large housing units and apartments where the installation of fiber into the individual units would otherwise be difficult. ClearCurve can be pulled through the same sorts of conduits as the existing copper, but is physically smaller and carries much more bandwidth. Even the single-mode version, with a single carrier frequency, offers maximum data rates of 25 Gbps.

Light Peak

These same advantages are just as useful in the desktop computing environment. Whereas older cables required armoring and were relatively bulky as a result, ClearCurve does not require anything other than physical protection from nicks and cuts, and the resulting cables can be much thinner. Instead of traditional armor, a flexible braided copper shell can be used to provide power to devices while also offering some physical protection.The resulting cables are thinner than the common USB cables used to attach printers or similar devices, about as thin as the reduced-size cabling used to support devices like mice.

The Light Peak cable contains a pair of optical fibers that are used for upstream and downstream traffic. This means that Light Peak offers a maximum of 10 Gbps in both directions at the same time. The prototype system featured two motherboard controllers that both supported two bidirectional buses at the same time, wired to four external connectors. Each pair of optical cables from the controllers is led to a connector, where power is added through separate wiring. The physical connector used on the prototype system looks similar to the existing USB or FireWire connectors.

Intel has stated that Light Peak is protocol independent, allowing it to support existing standards with a change of the physical medium. Few details on issues like protocol or timing contention have been released. Intel has stated that Light Peak has the performance to drive everything from storage to displays to networking, and it can maintain those speeds over 100 meter runs. As advantages over existing systems, they also note that a system using Light Peak will have fewer and smaller connectors, longer and thinner cables, higher bandwidth, and can run multiple protocols on a single cable.

One key piece of the device chain that has not been shown is a controller for the device-end of the bus. In the USB case, a single controller can contain the power circuitry, USB device logic, along with off-the-shelf, custom or programmable logic for running devices. A simple USB device can be built by adding a connector, one driver chip, and the hardware the system is meant to drive; a mouse is a good example of a system that is typically implemented using a single off-the-shelf chip.A similar single-chip solution will be in demand for Light Peak as well, but to date Intel has simply suggested it is working with industry partners to provide one.According to Intel, the companies that will produce Light Peak technology include Foxconn, Foxlink, Avago, SAE Magnetics[10], IPtronics, Corning, Elaser, and Ensphere Solutions.

History

Introduction

Although Light Peak is early in its development, Intel demonstrated a fully functional system at the 2009 Intel Developer Forum (IDF). Their demonstrations were being run on a prototype Mac Pro motherboard, using Light Peak to run two 1080p video streams, LAN and storage devices over a single 30 m long cable.At the show, Intel claimed that Light Peak equipped systems will begin to appear in 2010.

Disputed origins

Although the history is not yet well recorded, shortly after the IDF presentation technology blog Engadget reported that Light Peak had been developed by Intel in collaboration with Apple. The article claimed that Apple had been working on the technology since 2007, around the time that ClearCurve was introduced, and that Apple CEO Steve Jobs personally asked Intel CEO Paul Otellini to take up development of the system as a new standard, stating that an all-optical interconnect was the only way to proceed.

However, cnet later reported that other "industry sources" dispute this claim. This report states that Apple was contacted by Intel as part of an ongoing effort to introduce its industry partners and garner additional feedback. Sony was also mentioned at the IDF in this context, Apple was not mentioned at all.

In any event, Intel has suggested that systems using Light Peak are already being designed, and there are rumors that Apple intends to introduce Light Peak-equipped systems in Q4 of 2010.In addition to the demonstrated system, Intel has also announced that they will introduce a smaller low-power version for portable devices in 2011. They have also stated that the system will allow future expansion to 100 Gbps throughput.

Characteristics

Light Peak has the following characteristics:

  • 10 Gb/s over optical cable (up to 100 metres in length)
  • Connect to multiple devices at the same time
  • Multiple protocols
  • Bi-Directional transfer
  • Quality of service implementation
  • Hot pluggable
  • Intel is working on bundling the optical fiber with copper wire so Light Peak can be used to power devices.