Intel To Integrate Thunderbolt Into Next-Gen CPUs, Release Spec. Under Royalty-Free License

👤by Tim Harmer Comments 📅24.05.2017 19:21:39

Intel have just announced a massive shake-up in their Thunderbolt strategy, a shakeup which could bring the technology into more hands on vastly more devices than is currently the case.

Despite a rather mixed reception for the technology, chip giants Intel have been pushing forward with Thunderbolt since the early days when it was known as Light Peak and optical data transmission was still part of its remit. Conceived at a time when USB protocol development had been lagging and high-speed non-volatile memory SSD storage was just taking off, it incorporated two key features into its design: PCI-Express signalling and a widely used connector (initially, Displayport). Now into its third generation, Thunderbolt supports PCI-Express 3.0 and the newer USB 3.1 Type-C connector to haul data at a rate of up 40Gbit/s, not to mention optionally supplying up to 100W of power.

In principle, Thunderbolt 3 is well placed to take advantage of greater demand for high-speed storage and new possibilities in external graphics and VR HMDs. According to Intel over 120 PC designs including the newest MacBook Pro laptops support Thunderbolt 3, and we're well aware that a large number of partner motherboard designs are equipped with the capability for the technology. Unfortunately new peripherals supporting Thunderbolt have been sparse.

Manufacturers who wanted to integrate Thunderbolt into their designs either needed to hedge with multiple connector types (for example NAS, USB 2.0 & Thunderbolt/Displayport) or risk narrowing the appeal, something that was an acute problem for external storage outside the enterprise arena. Laptop dock developers had a slightly easier time thanks to the backing of Apple, who incorporated Thunderbolt into their MacBook Pro line almost immediately. Outside these two key arenas Thunderbolt has been overlooked as a solution with enormous potential but little mass-market appeal, despite a small number of niche products surfacing in the prosumer audio sector.

Today may however herald a sea-change in the status quo as Intel have revealed that Thunderbolt 3 technology will be integrated into upcoming generations of Intel CPUs, a move with could significantly widen the install base of the technology and bring it to lower cost business and consumer markets. Bringing the Thunderbolt 3 controller on-board potentially eliminates the need for the expensive Alpine Ridge controller on motherboards, and would more easily facilitate single-connector ecosystems for the PC - that connector being USB 3.1 Type-C.

"Intel’s vision for Thunderbolt was not just to make a faster computer port, but a simpler and more versatile port available to everyone. We envision a future where high-performance single-cable docks, stunning photos and 4K video, lifelike VR, and faster-than-ever storage are commonplace. A world where one USB-C connector does it all – today, and for many years to come. With this vision in mind, Intel is announcing that it plans to drive large-scale mainstream adoption of Thunderbolt by integrating Thunderbolt 3 into future Intel CPUs and by releasing the Thunderbolt protocol specification to the industry next year.

With Thunderbolt 3 integrated into the CPU, computer makers can build thinner and lighter systems with only Thunderbolt 3 ports. For the first time, all the ports on a computer can be the same – any port can charge the system and connect to Thunderbolt devices, every display and billions of USB devices. Designs based on Intel’s integrated Thunderbolt 3 solution require less board space and reduce power by removing the discrete component needed for existing systems with Thunderbolt 3."

While forthcoming generations of Intel's PC platform will feature native support for Thunderbolt 3 without an independent controller, Intel are aware that this arrangement may not suit all peripheral developers who would ideally want to use the technology. Nonetheless it's surprising to see them loosen their grip on the IP just a little by making the Thunderbolt protocol specification available to the industry under a nonexclusive, royalty-free license later this year. Third-party chip makers would be able to develop their own controllers and the overall cost for non-native systems should fall in the long term.

"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."

Core areas of growth which could be stimulated by this move are consumer external high-speed storage manufacturers and laptop docks, especially docks which double as external graphics enclosures. By supplying up to four PCI-Express 3.0 lanes Thunderbolt 3 can finally support external graphics at reasonable resolutions and image quality settings. Furthermore Thunderbolt would be an ideal candidate for single-cable HMD solutions due to its 100W power delivery capability, making VR a more attractive proposition to consumers.

Intel are working with both Microsoft and Apple to make the end-user experience with Thunderbolt as seemless as possible, including an update to plug-and-play functionality released alongside the Windows 10 Creator Update this month. But it's still some time before we're likely to see it make significant inroads as a ubiquitous IO standard on PC.

All in all this appears to be a very positive move from Intel and could be a huge shot in the arm for both Thunderbolt in general and external peripherals in the consumer and business space. The devil may well be in the detail however - will Thunderbolt on non-Intel PC systems explicitly be allowed, or does the licensing only extend to peripheral device manufacturers?

We should find out more next week at Computex2017. More information on Thunderbolt can be found at

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