Intel and Apple have just jointly announced the technology now known as Thunderbolt. Presented on several occasions last year by Intel under the name Light Peak, it consists of a new high-speed connection technology that runs at up to 10 Gbps in full duplex mode. Intel is supplying modules that can transfer data both through copper cables and optical fibre, one of Intel’s innovations being to have significantly reduced the cost of the optical interface. This is one of the first concrete applications of the research on this subject by Silicon Photonics that Intel has been regularly presenting at IDF.
Thunderbolt wiring distinguishable by a small flash of lightning
Cables will mainly be copper at first, with optical fibre cables (two fibres) coming onto the market later. Optical will improve the transmission distance. We’ll have to wait for later revisions to see an improvement in speeds (Intel is hoping to multiply speeds by ten eventually). In terms of connectivity, Intel has chosen to use DisplayPort connectors. Thunderbolt could moreover be seen as a development of DisplayPort as the technology allows the transfer of PCI Express bus type data at the same time as standard video data. Using PCI Express means that all desired protocols can be handled indirectly, from the network controller to the drive controller (and even USB/Firewire, virtually anything is possible). Peripherals connected with Thunderbolt appear on the system as a new PCI Express peripheral, which sill simplify driver issues.
Thunderbolt can be seen as an extension of the PCI Express bus to external peripherals.
Apple is the first to put out machines equipped with Intel’s Thunderbolt controller. Other controllers (mainly on peripherals) should soon be announced by Intel’s partners. You’ll find an official presentation of the technology on Intel’s site