Intel is working on a new technology that would speed up communications between silicon chips, helping accelerate the work of cloud data centers while saving energy. But the effort won’t be ready for commercial applications for three to five more years, according to one Wall Street analyst.
The technology embeds tiny lasers and fiber optic connections into a chip to transmit data directly to another chip, Christopher Rolland of Susquehanna Financial, said on Tuesday. With the semiconductor industry reaching limits on how many transistors can be packed into chips, the ability to transmit information between chips at higher speed will be critical in the future, Rolland said.
“This technology is nothing short of miraculous and we view it as a potential game changer for Intel and the industry,” Rolland wrote in his report.
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Intel could use a few game changers amid a slowing market for its PC chips. While its data center chip unit is doing well, other efforts to find new markets such as making chips for mobile devices have struggled. Excluding the acquisition of smaller chip maker Altera last year, Intel’s revenue grew only 3% over the first nine months of 2016.
But silicon photonics, as the new technology is called, could give sales a dramatic boost by making Intel’s data center chips far more efficient. For example, an Intel Xeon chip, which acts as a server’s central processor, could use the new technology to transmit information directly to a field-programmable gate array, or FPGA, which data centers use to run special algorithms for big data analysis and machine learning, Rolland said. Such a connection would allow communication as fast as if the two chips were actually one, he said, and require less energy.
Intel has said publicly that it plans eventually to integrate silicon photonics directly onto chips. But it has not given details about how the integration would work and Rolland’s examples could ultimately miss the mark.
Intel has already announced some products related to the technology. In August, the company said it had created devices that incorporated silicon photonics to move data at rates of 100 gigabits-per-second over distances of up to several kilometers. But the current products are aimed at moving information around cloud data center servers, not at the much smaller scale of one chip to another.
An Intel spokesman on Tuesday declined to comment on the specifics of Rolland’s report.
Many other companies are working on silicon photonics technology, ranging from Cisco Systems
to much smaller, private firms like Luxtera and Rockley Photonics.
The three to five year time frame may be too far out for most investors to get excited. Shares of Intel
were nearly unchanged in midday trading on Tuesday.