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Intel Brings Thunderbolt To The CPU, Gives It Away

The announcement reads, "Intel Announces Plans to Integrate Thunderbolt 3 into Future Intel CPUs and to Release the Thunderbolt Protocol Specification to the Industry."

Intel already integrated many functions into the CPU and has plans to bring more to the processor in the future. The entire memory controller function was integrated several years ago, but since then, most of the combined IO fell to the chipset. For years, we've read little bits about network integration and then found Omni-Path, a next-generation network fabric used to communicate between CPUs in different physical servers, on the processor die of newly released Xeon parts. Newer processor types like those found in the Atom family have eliminated the chipset altogether. The low-power system-on-chip (SoC) designs don't power gaming or high-performance systems, so they receive less attention, but they're no less remarkable.

Thunderbolt 3 Shortcomings

Intel developed USB in the 1990s, and the connection is now ubiquitous on devices ranging from our smartphones to PCs to low-cost TVs that are sitting in big box stores. USB has truly become universal. By contrast, Thunderbolt technology was highly adapted by Apple product users and feathered into high-end PC systems by motherboard manufacturers. In the Z170 (and later, Z270) chipset motherboards, users saw a higher uptick in integration as some mid-tier systems shipped with Thunderbolt 3. Even now it's considered a premium option among mainstream systems. 

Intel took steps in the third-coming of Thunderbolt to reduce costs for users. Expensive active cables are no longer required for short distances, and the physical connector is shared with USB Type-C. The technology delivers a 4x bandwidth increase over USB 3.1 with combined data and video (only 32Gb/s for data alone).

The largest costs for device manufacturers comes from two sources. The first is the physical Thunderbolt 3 chip called Alpine Ridge (DSL6540). The add-on chip costs just $8.55 from Intel per Intel's ARK resource, but we suspect motherboard manufacturers pay less. We don't know the extent of the licensing costs per device, but we think that both the motherboard and the connected device face a fee for using the Thunderbolt logo and other associated materials. The Alpine Ridge chip consumes four PCI Express 3.0 lanes, and that's a considerable amount on platforms that have only 24 to start with. The chip also consumes up to 2.2W of power, making it a burden for notebooks.

The new Thunderbolt 3 scheme will overcome many of these shortcomings. With the technology on the processor, companies and users won't need to pay for an add-on chip in either dollars or additional power consumption. It will also allow system builders to make thinner and lighter systems. All of the ports will be the same Type-C connector that can even support charging from a power adapter. Dual-use ports with both USB 3.1 and Thunderbolt 3 on both sides of a notebook would be extremely attractive while at the same time moving the technology from high-end devices to mainstream products.

Sweet, Sweet Storage

There are many reasons to expand Thunderbolt 3 connectivity. Single-cable docking stations, external enclosures with user upgradeable graphics cards for virtual reality and gaming come to mind, but Thunderbolt's best case for expansion comes from storage. The transition to NVMe is in full swing, and USB is compatible with the lightweight protocol. Thunderbolt 3, essentially an external PCI Express technology, fully supports NVMe. This allows for external storage devices to operate at the same speed as internal storage devices.

In a blog post, Chris Walker, Intel Vice President, Client Computing Group General Manager, Mobility Client Platform, said:

In addition to Intel’s Thunderbolt silicon, next year Intel plans to make the Thunderbolt protocol specification available to the industry under a nonexclusive, royalty-free license. Releasing the Thunderbolt protocol specification in this manner is expected to greatly increase Thunderbolt adoption by encouraging third-party chip makers to build Thunderbolt-compatible chips. We expect industry chip development to accelerate a wide range of new devices and user experiences.

The second shortfall of Thunderbolt comes from licensing from Intel. The document didn't give us too many details about what "royalty-free licensing" actually means for device manufacturers or third-party silicon. In any case, though, more components supporting Thunderbolt will aid in reducing costs and help grow the ecosystem.

The winners of the new program are Western Digital and Seagate. Both companies have subsidiaries heavily involved in Thunderbolt devices like LaCie and G-Technology. At this time, both companies amass the majority of Thunderbolt 3 connected devices, but that may change as soon as next year when the technology becomes more user friendly and cost effective.