How PCI Express Works

PCI Express Lanes

When the computer starts up, PCIe determines which devices are plugged into the motherboard. It then identifies the links between the devices, creating a map of where traffic will go and negotiating the width of each link. This identification of devices and connections is the same protocol PCI uses, so PCIe does not require any changes to software or operating systems.

Each lane of a PCI Express connection contains two pairs of wires -- one to send and one to receive. Packets of data move across the lane at a rate of one bit per cycle. A x1 connection, the smallest PCIe connection, has one lane made up of four wires. It carries one bit per cycle in each direction. A x2 link contains eight wires and transmits two bits at once, a x4 link transmits four bits, and so on. Other configurations are x12, x16 and x32.

PCI Express is available for desktop and laptop PCs. Its use may lead to lower cost of motherboard production, since its connections contain fewer pins than PCI connections do. It also has the potential to support many devices, including Ethernet cards, USB 2 and video cards.

But how can one serial connection be faster than the 32 wires of PCI or the 64 wires of PCIx? In the next section, we'll look at how PCIe is able to provide a vast amount of bandwidth in a serial format.