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Intel, FB Team to Move Photonics into Data Centers

SANTA CLARA, Calif., Jan. 17, 2013 — Intel Corp. is collaborating with Facebook to define the next generation of rack technologies used to move huge amounts of information through the world's largest data centers, the companies announced this week at the Open Compute Summit in Santa Clara. Their approach is based on Intel's silicon photonics technology, which uses light to move data at very high speeds over optical fiber rather than electrical signals through a copper cable. Also as part of their collaboration, they unveiled a prototype that will "open source" Intel's silicon photonics.

"Intel and Facebook are collaborating on a new disaggregated, rack-scale server architecture that enables independent upgrading of compute, network and storage subsystems that will define the future of mega-datacenter designs for the next decade," said Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer, in his keynote address. "Rack disintegration" refers to the separation of resources that currently exist in a rack, including compute, storage, networking and power distribution, into discrete modules. Separating compute and storage resources in a server rack can save businesses with large data centers a significant amount of money because it adds flexibility to the system and makes it more easily upgradable — increasing its life span — and reliable.

A 50-Gb/s silicon photonics transmit module (left) sends laser light from the silicon chip at the center of the green board, which then travels through optical fiber to the receiver module (right), where a second silicon chip detects the data on the laser and converts it back into an electrical signal. Courtesy of Intel.

The new architecture is based on more than a decade's worth of research to invent a line of silicon-based photonic devices, including lasers, modulators and detectors, using low-cost silicon to fully integrate photonic devices of unprecedented speed and energy efficiency, Rattner said. Intel has spent the past two years proving its silicon photonics technology was production-worthy and has now created engineering samples that run at speeds up to 100 Gb/s.

A mechanical prototype of the architecture unveiled at the summit by Quanta Computer demonstrated the separate distributed switching functions.

"We're excited about the flexibility that these technologies can bring to hardware and how silicon photonics will enable us to interconnect these resources with less concern about their physical placement," said Frank Frankovsky, chairman of the Open Compute Foundation and vice president of hardware design and supply chain at Facebook. "We're confident that developing these technologies in the open and contributing them back to the Open Compute Project will yield an unprecedented pace of innovation, ultimately enabling the entire industry to close the utilization gap that exists with today's systems designs."

Intel will contribute a design for enabling such a photonic receptacle to the Open Compute Project (OCP) and will work with Facebook, Corning and others to standardize the design, the company said. The mechanical prototype includes the 22-nm next-generation system-on-chip Intel Atom processor code-named Avoton, which is expected to be available this year.

Intel and Facebook are founding board members of the OCP and have long been technology collaboration partners, Intel said.

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