Back at IDF 2010, we wrote about Intel Light Peak nearing its eventual launch in 2011. Back then, the story was a 10 Gbps or faster physical link tunneling virtually every protocol under the sun over optical fiber. Though an optical physical layer provided the speed, in reality the connector and physical layer itself wasn’t as important as the tunneling and signaling going on beneath it. The dream was to provide a unified interface with enough bandwidth to satisfy virtually everything desktop users need at the same time - DVI, HDMI, DisplayPort, USB, FireWire, SATA, you name it. Daisy chain devices together, and connect everything with one unified connector and port. At IDF, we saw it moving data around between an Avid HD I/O box, a Western Digital external RAID array, and simultaneously outputting audio and video over HDMI. Intel also had another live demo working at over 6.5 Gbps. 

That dream lives on today, but sans optical fiber and under a different name. Intel’s codename “Light Peak” is now named Thunderbolt. In addition, instead of optical fiber, ordinary copper does an adequate enough job until suitably cheap optical components are available. It’s a bit tough to swallow that optical fiber for the desktop still isn’t quite ready for mainstream consumption - issues like bend radius and the proper connectors were already mitigated - but copper is good enough in the meantime. Thunderbolt launched with the 2011 MacBook Pro, and though the interface isn’t Apple exclusive, will likely not see adoption in the PC space until 2012. 

Although Thunderbolt in its launch instantiation is electrical, future versions will move to and support optical connections. When the transition to optical takes place, legacy electrical connector devices will work through cables with an electro-optical transceiver on the cable ends so there won’t be any need to use two separate kinds of cables. The optical version of Thunderbolt is allegedly coming later this year. 

Thunderbolt shares the same connectors and cabling with mini DisplayPort, however Thunderbolt cables have different, tighter design requirements to fully support Thunderbolt signaling. DisplayPort is an interesting choice since it’s already one of the fastest (if not the fastest) desktop interfaces, topping out at 17.28 Gbps in DisplayPort 1.2 at lengths of under 3 meters. At longer distances, physics rears its ugly head, and throughput drops off over electrical links. Of course, the eventual advantages of moving to photons instead of electrons are greater distance without picking up much latency. 

Thunderbolt is dual-channel, with each channel supporting 10 Gbps of bidirectional bandwidth. That’s a potential 20 Gbps of upstream and 20 Gbps of downstream bandwidth. The connection supports a daisy chain topology, and Thunderbolt also supports power over the cable, 10W to be precise. We aren't sure at this time what the breakdown on voltage/amperage is though.

Back when it was Light Peak, the goal was to tunnel every protocol under the sun over a common fast link. Multiplex everything together over one protocol-agnostic link, and then you could drop relevant data for each peripheral at each device in the daisy chain. Up to 2 high-resolution DisplayPort 1.1a displays and 7 total devices can be daisy chained. Thunderbolt instead carries just two protocols - DisplayPort and PCI Express. Tunnel a PCIe lane over the link, and you can dump it out on a peripheral and use a local SATA, FireWire, USB, or Gigabit ethernet controller to do the heavy lifting. Essentially any PCI Express controller can be combined with the Thunderbolt controller to act like an adapter. If you want video from the GPU, a separate dedicated DisplayPort link will work as well. Looking at the topology, a 4x PCI Express link is required in addition to a direct DisplayPort connection from the GPU. 

Apple learned its lesson after FireWire licensing slowed adoption - the Thunderbolt port and controller specification are entirely Intel’s. Similarly, there’s no per-port licensing fee or royalty for peripheral manufacturers to use the port or the Thunderbolt controller. iFixit beat Anand and me to tearing down the 2011 MacBook Pro (though I did have one open, and was hastily cramming my OptiBay+SSD and HDD combo inside) and already got a shot of Intel's Thunderbolt controller, which itself is large enough to be unmistakable:

Thunderbolt Controller IC on 15" 2011 MacBook Pro - Courtesy iFixit 

In addition, you can still plug normal mini Display Port devices into Thunderbolt ports and just drive video if you so choose. 

Though there aren’t any Thunderbolt compatible peripherals on the market right now, Western Digital, LaCie, and Promise have announced storage solutions with Thunderbolt support. Further, a number of media creation vendors have announced or already demonstrated support, like the Avid HD I/O box we saw at IDF. 

Thunderbolt already faces competition from 4.8 Gbps USB 3.0 which has already seen a lot of adoption on the PC side. The parallels between USB 2.0 / FireWire and USB 3.0 / Thunderbolt are difficult to ignore, and ultimately peripheral availability and noticeable speed differences will sell one over the other in the long run. Moving forwards, it’ll be interesting to see Thunderbolt finally realize the “light” part of Light Peak’s codename, and exactly how that transition works out for the fledgling interface.

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  • bunnyfubbles - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    I'm pretty sure he meant 10GbE.

    But either way, it sounds like this won't replace networking given its disadvantage with any sort of appreciable networking distances.
  • glugglug - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    I also don't see why you would use this over a **much cheaper** 10GbE ethernet cable. For the distances its capable of you could go with much cheaper SATA3 for 6Gb/s, or probably SATA4 by the time this becomes available on non-Apple stuff.
  • gt1911 - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    Yep, Sorry, stuff up in my post. I meant 10GbE
  • Azethoth - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    My guess for the wire based lengths would be that you could get cat7 performance which in theory means max 40GbE at 50 meters. Much less in practice of course. Lets assume only 2x10GbE at 10 meters or 30' based on currently shipping speeds. Depending on cost and the latency constraints mentioned earlier the lengths may be specced even shorter. Chaining extends the total length.

    Optical of course should add a nice multiple to the lengths.

    I hope we do not waste too many sputnik-broadband $ on thunderbolt. I want the optical goodness!
  • DanNeely - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    Assuming you mean 10GBe, it can run upto 100m on quality copper cable before needing a signal booster, thunderbolt's limited to 3m on copper.
  • gt1911 - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    Thanks guys
  • softdrinkviking - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    Will the optical implementation of thunderbolt continue to supply power?
  • relentlessfocus - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    No, sorry don't have a link for you but I read this in several places.
  • Shadowself - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    While the current implementation is copper based having copper wires for both data and power, the future implementations will have fiber for data and copper for power. The power lines will not be eliminated from the fiber implementation. The cables and connectors will be a combination of fiber and copper.

    The only reasons for the fiber implementation are increased distance and increased speed for the data. Intel has claimed that under the fiber implementation they expect to have 100 Gbps per channel by 2020.

    The power supplied is DC power. Within reason, this is independent of the data and the distance of the cables. Therefore no significant change to the power lines will be required when it goes to fiber for the data side of the link.
  • Guspaz - Friday, February 25, 2011 - link

    "The power supplied is DC power. Within reason, this is independent of the data and the distance of the cables. Therefore no significant change to the power lines will be required when it goes to fiber for the data side of the link."

    The problem of delivering low-voltage power over 3m and over 100m are completely different. PoE has to do the same thing (deliver DC power over 100m of cabling). In order to do so, it requires a relatively high voltage. I believe that PoE puts 57v into the cable, and expects to get at least 37v at the other end after resistance loss is accounted for. If they go for the same 5v as USB, they're going to have major issues at 100m.

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