Combined Thunderbolt and PCI Express Will Offer One High-Speed I/O

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by Andy Patrizio

Intel has multiple irons in the fire when it comes to high speed interfaces, covering both the internal interfaces of a PC and external devices. This can lead to a preponderance of interfaces, so Intel is mixing a best of breed of two interfaces.

The company is working on improving the speed and features of Thunderbolt, an external port, to PCI Express 3.0 levels. Intel does not disclose any actual details of implementations or set dates at this point.

“We are working on integrating PCI Express 3.0 support into a future version of Thunderbolt, but are not prepared to get into more detail at this time,” said Dave Salvator, a spokesman for Intel.

Intel Thunderbolt

Thunderbolt technology was initially developed under the codename “Light Peak” and was supposed to be used with fiber optic cables. It combined PCI Express and DisplayPort into a serial interface that would support very long cables, since it was optical. When it shipped on Apple MacBooks, fiber was replaced with copper wires that had a maximum length of three meters, but it was still a very fast port at up to 10 gigabits per lane.

Thunderbolt was developed when USB was still at the 2.0 stage, and since then, USB 3 has hit, supporting up to 5 Gbps transfer rates. That’s about half of Thunderbolt, which is more than enough for many usage cases. Because it can handle up to 100 watts of power, USB 3 has been talked about as a potential interface for monitors.

Thunderbolt plus PCI-Express 3.0 would essentially double the current 10Gbps throughput. Thunderbolt today is PCIe 2.0 with four data lanes, each at 2.5Gbps. PCI Express 3.0 is twice that speed.

By combining Thunderbolt and PCI-e 3.0, Intel will have a multiple data transfer port that can handle storage I/O, networking, and display protocols through a single, unified connector. The Thunderbolt connector on MacBooks is also small, smaller than the typical USB port, making it ideal for ultrabooks and tablets, notes Jag Bolaria, senior analyst with The Linley Group.

“Technology-wise, it’s not a huge thing to do,” he said. “The way Intel might be leading is for these ultrabooks and ultra thin devices like MacBook Air, instead of having all the different ports on those systems, you can consolidate to just one that comes out of the box. That could be Thunderbolt, but it’s difficult to see a box being shipped without USB on it as well.”

Still, Bolaria believes Intel would like to have Thunderbolt be the one port that comes outside the box. “I think the ultimate vision is one high speed interface. They might need up to eight [data] lanes to have enough bandwidth to handle all your peripherals,” he said.

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