Intel Brings the Thunderbolt Revolution

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By Paul Korzeniowski

Start of a desktop revolution or a novel technology destined to become a trivia question someday? These two possible paths await Intel’s Thunderbolt technology, which debuted in February. Designed for high speed desktop applications, it carries a DisplayPort 1.1 video stream and a PCI Express data stream simultaneously over a three-meter electrical cable. With its two-channel interface, Thunderbolt is capable of delivering 10G bps per channel in each direction – a total of 40G bps. Those features are impressive, both in terms of their raw data throughput as well as their versatility.

Theoretically, users will reap some noteworthy benefits from the added bandwidth and flexibility. The extra capacity could support next-generation, ultra-high resolution (say 2560×1440 (1440p) or 3840×2160 (2160p)) displays. Thunderbolt also features daisy-chaining, in this case up to seven devices, so a desktop’s power, display and peripherals can all be connected via a single cable. The Intel interface does all this using relatively little power: ten watts. With this new interface, suppliers could deliver thinner, more mobile desktop systems. In fact, the interface debuted on Apple’s MacBook Pro, which was not surprising since the vendor has continually pushed the envelope in those areas.

The emerging desktop interface faces some challenges though. How much of a performance boost it offers is open to interpretation; its most significant differentiator comes once Intel releases an optical version, which now is a murky future direction rather than a deliverable product. In addition, the interface is expensive, and third party support is minimal. So while Thunderbolt appears to be an interesting desktop option, its long term impact is uncertain at the moment.

Thunderbolt is the fruit of Intel’s LightPeak program, a research and development effort that was announced in the fall of 2009 and focused on delivering high-speed optical connections both within and among desktop devices. “For some time, Intel has been interested in using optical components to boost desktop performance,” noted Steve Kleynhans, Vice President, Client Computing Group, at market research firm Gartner Inc.

Interconnect technology Theoretical top speed Typical usage
USB 2.0 480 Megabits per second Various desktop peripherals
USB 3.0 4.8 Gigabits per second Various computer and server peripherals
FireWire 800 800 Megabits per second Mainly Apple computer peripherals
eSATA (SATA III) 6 Gigabits per second Storage expansion
HDMI 10 Gigabits per second Mainly HDTV interconnect
Thunderbolt (copper) 10 Gigabits per second Desktop video and computer peripherals
Thunderbolt (fiberoptic)* 100 Gigabits per second Extends Thunderbolt to server peripherals

* Not yet available

Moving in a different direction
The vendor’s plans for all optical connections changed, and the first version of the Intel standard runs only on copper wiring. The interface still relies on optical transceivers, but they are incorporated into the optical cables, not the silicon or the device. This design provides a number of advantages compared to LightPeak, according to Brian O’Rourke, Principal Analyst at market research firm In-Stat. A Thunderbolt optical implementation reduces the cost of the device because silicon photonics are still relatively expensive; it allows for both copper/electrical interfaces and optical interfaces through the same peripheral connector, and it only requires that higher-end applications, like data center servers and storage, are burdened with the cost of the more expensive optical cabling.

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