Light Peak: black hole

Light Peak: black hole

Summary: Light Peak is a high-speed optical I/O interconnect - starting at 10 Gbit/sec and scaling to 100 - whose parents are 3 of the biggest I/0 screwups in high tech: Sony, Apple and Intel. Can you spell doomed?


Light Peak is a high-speed optical I/O interconnect - starting at 10 Gbit/sec and scaling to 100 - whose parents are 3 of the biggest I/0 screwups in high tech: Sony, Apple and Intel. Can you spell doomed?

And that is too bad for us, because Light Peak - or something like it - is a Very Good Thing.

The need The Moore's Law driven merry-go-round of CPU, storage and bandwidth growth needs to get another push - this time with bandwidth. USB 3.0 claims a 5 Gbit/sec bandwidth - like USB 2.0 claims 480 Mbit/sec, HA! - but leading edge consumers are already using that with eSATA.

For these folks USB 3.0 is too little, too late.

But USB 3.0 faces a bigger problem: stricter EMI regulations. The 1 GHz and above band has been lightly regulated but as more services - Wifi and more - move into that range standards groups are clamping down.

Each USB 3.0 cable and port is a gigahertz radio broadcasting in your living room. The cables can be shielded but the emission problems will only get worse with time as devices proliferate.

That's where Light Peak comes in. An optical interconnect cable doesn't radiate EMI. It's immune to problems like ground loops that can afflict copper cables. High-speed optical interconnects are cleaner.

Every interconnect takes up device space and power, requires driver updates and leaves customers with the limitations of older technology. Yet the longer a popular interconnect is shipping the better the drivers can be tuned for both reliability and performance.

The players Intel, Sony and Apple hope to make Light Peak a universal optical interconnect. Intel has been driving hard to reduce the cost of the optical transceivers and they have made tremendous progress. Apple wants to limit the number of interconnects on its systems. And Sony and the rest of Hollywood dream of a consumer paradise where we spend all day watching carefully DRM'd 3D super high def video on an array of costly displays, speakers and servers.

And everyone wants a physically small and fast I/O port for mobile devices.

Sadly, none of them get I/O.

  • Apple. Arguably the worst offender, Apple's penchant for tiny I/O ports - mini-VGA, mini-DVI, mini-DisplayPort and the ghastly ADC - has inflicted more pain on Mac users than even FireWire's high license fees.
  • Intel. Who remembers that Intel pushed Infiniband to replace PCI? Great I/O tech with no sense of market realities like cost.
  • Sony. They've pooched Blu-ray. Last consumer hits: PS2, Walkman and Trinitron. And they love DRM.

Intel claims all Light Peak components will ship next year. But they need a launch customer, preferably one with a large following among bandwidth intensive users such as scientists and video pros. Apple fits the bill.

The consumer wild card Consumer acceptance - even from Apple fans - is not a given. One big issue: the cost of critical bits like hubs, disk interfaces and cables.

When USB was new the extra bits were costly too. The key is how fast Intel can drive optical chip prices down. They tend to be way optimistic - so I'm not.

The Storage Bits take Light Peak is a great idea and doomed. Between obnoxious DRM, costly optical hubs and switches, Blu-ray style licensing fees, Intel over-engineering and Apple's penchant for twee little I/O ports, Light Peak is almost certain to come to fail.

Which is too bad. USB2 shows the value and power of a mature general purpose interconnect. Plug in a thumb drive, digital camera, media player, disk drive, scanner, printer, hub or rocket launcher - and they just work.

That takes years, so an interconnect designed to scale to 100 Gbits/sec as Moore's Law drives down interface costs is a Very Good Thing. Let's hope our corporate overlords surprise us this once.

Comments welcome, of course. How about giving thanks this week for driver writers whose hard work is among the least appreciated in all of techdom?

Topics: Hardware, Apple, Intel, Mobility, Networking, Telcos

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  • "Consumer acceptance - even from Apple fans - is not a given."

    Don't bet on it.

    If it says Apple on it anywhere, the Apple fanboys/girls will worship it, just like everything else from Cupertino.

    And WHEN it fails...they'll find some way to blame Microsoft.
  • Bwah ha haa haaa!

    "bandwidth intensive users such as scientists" and Apple?
    This is like Republicans and health care or Democrats and tax cuts.
    If HDMI is a preview .... FORGET IT!
    Who wants to pay $150 for a "light peak" mouse instead of $5 for a USB mouse?
    Just do an Amazon search for fiber optic transcievers and prepare for sticker shock!
  • I am scared of light interfaces.

    I fear things could really go sour. You need the light on all the time to get something like USB, which is hell for notebooks, and the cables do not sound reliable to me. Do they sound reliable to you? And forget the dream of a computer that uses light interfaces internally, that is just crazy. If this goes forward, forget working on your PC while it is running. This makes little sense to me, and I do actually believe in USB 3. As long as they do not try to add another connector to render all our previous devices useless, I am all for 3.0.
    • Don't be.

      The audio industry has been using fiber optic cable for years, and under
      conditions that are much harsher than any you could imagine.

      Rock shows and Broadway tours use them all the time, as do remote
      recording trucks. The cables are run under the feet of the audience, in
      the wet, in the mud, strung across city streets...

      They are extremely reliable.
    • new adapter style

      I can't tell you how many times I've uttered that the inventor of the USB interconnect (the male and female ends) should be hauled out, drawn, quartered and shot.

      Serial, parallel, VGA, DVI, HDMI even firewire are all glaringly obvious which way the dang thing goes in... why USB broke this basic concept has always been a burr under my saddle nagging at me, like every time I go to plug something in.

      If USB 3 comes out with a new and obviously 'this way up' connector I'll throw away all my USB 2 hardware and upgrade.
  • RE: Light Peak: black hole

    Apple, Sony, and Intel have all three a history of successful
    innovation as well. As for 'fearing' optical based data
    transfer, it too is a very mature technology. Every backbone
    of the internet is fiber optical. Immensely reliable and a pipe
    bigger than any possible with copper. Getting that
    technology shrunk for networks has already been done to
    some extent. Getting it down to the PC level might be
    challenging, but I rather take the view that all three players
    have the gumption to 'git 'er done.'
    • As I stated above...

      the audio industry uses optical based data transfer all the time, and in a
      mission-critical application, as well.
  • FYI - Some day 100Gb, not scalable..

    Per the ZDnet story the Light Peak link takes you to, they think they can get 100Gb. That leads me to conclude it does scale with something like channel bonding.

    FYI - As far as price, don't let a Google search fool you. Make sure that you are looking at manufacturing parts, not standalone media converters or addons for equipment. Here is an example with a stated price of under $6 for a 150Mbps duplex tranceiver.
  • RE: Light Peak: black hole

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