It seems 10-Gigabit Ethernet is following a different path than its predecessors. When the 100-Mbps version of Ethernet — then known as Fast Ethernet — first appeared, it was adopted first in local-area network backbones, then spread toward the desktop. Today, 100-Mbps connections to

the desktop are commonplace.

Gigabit Ethernet also started in the backbone. Its movement toward the desktop has been sluggish so far, though some say it is gradually making inroads. But until Gigabit Ethernet develops a serious presence at the desktop, there may be little reason to upgrade backbones to the next plateau, which is 10-Gigabit Ethernet. As for 10-Gigabit to the desktop, don’t hold your breath. So far, 10-Gig has moved slowly.

“”I think most people would like to see it pick up faster than it has, but that’s probably attributable to general economic conditions,”” says Bob Grow, chair of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.3 standards working group and a former chair of the 10-Gigabit Ethernet Association.

Yet the new standard does have a place — in metropolitan-area networks that would not previously have used Ethernet at all, in some high-capacity backbones and in specialized data-centre applications.

Initially, 10-Gigabit Ethernet is attracting attention among emerging competitive carriers seeking to build fibre networks in major cities. They include electric companies that have decided to use their existing right-of-ways to run optical fibre and offer voice and data communications services to business customers.

EASIER TO FIND PEOPLE WITH EXPERTISE IN ETHERNET

For example, Enersource Telecom, a unit of Mississauga, Ont. power utility Enersource Corp. operates a 250-kilometre fibre network covering Peel region, a western suburb of Toronto. Its six hubs are joined by 10-Gigabit Ethernet connections, says Brad Randall, general manager of the telecom operations.

“”It allows us to have basically no restrictions between our hub centres,”” Randall says.

Possibly there would be more activity were it not for the sorry state of the North American telecom industry in general.

“”We’re still in telecom meltdown,”” observes Nick Tidd, managing director of 3Com Canada Inc. “”and capital expenditures for upgrade projects are pretty much frozen.””

10-Gigabit Ethernet appeals to emerging carriers because of Ethernet’s ubiquity, which means not only that carriers can easily find the technical expertise needed to build and maintain the networks, but also that they can integrate easily with the customers’ networks.

“”The customer is well aware of the capabilities of Ethernet and it provides a natural extension of their networks,”” Randall says.

Dennis Fiore, senior product line manager at Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Avaya Inc., says a lower total cost of ownership compared to competing technologies for wide-area networking is a key selling point for 10-Gigabit Ethernet.

In the enterprise market, interest has been slower to build. “”It’s kind of rare that you would see the need for that kind of scale of performance,”” says Dan McLean, networking analyst at Toronto-based IDC Canada.

“”Primarily what we see is large universities and school districts using it for large campuses and geographically dispersed districts,”” adds Carroll (Cal) Calamari, director of product management at Avaya.

The network vendors with a strong emphasis on 10-Gigabit say there is an enterprise market for it, though. Robert Quiros, director of product marketing at Force10 Networks, Inc., a Milpitas, Calif., high-speed Ethernet supplier, says large businesses are already interested in 10-Gigabit Ethernet for network backbones and for use in consolidating data centres.

“”Just as Fast Ethernet created the need for Gigabit Ethernet, the pervasiveness of Gigabit Ethernet now is creating the demand for 10-Gigabit Ethernet,”” Quiros claims.

By now, the pattern is well established. Fast Ethernet caught on first in corporate backbones, where it was needed to keep up with a growing volume of traffic from switched 10-Mbps connections to desktops. Then the 100-Mbps technology began finding its way down to the desktop, and before very long that created enough traffic to drive demand for Gigabit Ethernet in the backbone.

But Fiore says Gigabit Ethernet has not taken off as expected at the desktop, so “”it’s going to be a while”” before most corporate backbones need 10-Gigabit.

“”I don’t think there was as much pent-up demand for it as there was when we moved Fast Ethernet to the desktop,”” Grow admits. But Grow maintains Gigabit Ethernet is “”starting to get traction”” in desktop connections, with a few PC manufacturers building Gigabit Ethernet into motherboards.

Other enterprise applications may come faster. According to Quiros, large corporations — primarily the Fortune 500 — are amalgamating smaller data centres into fewer and larger centres. To make this work, they need very fast communication both within these consolidated data centres and for the data pipes leading in and out of them.

Other networking technologies such as Fibre Channel have dominated data centres in the past, but Quiros says 10-Gigabit Ethernet has an advantage over the latest generation of Fibre Channel and the InfiniBand architecture because Ethernet is ubiquitous and well understood.

STORAGE NETWORKING MAY BE THE KILLER APPLICATION

An extension of the data centre application is the use of 10-Gigabit Ethernet to tie together large quantities of high-speed storage. McLean suggests storage networking might be a killer application for 10-Gigabit Ethernet in the foreseeable future.

Tidd says increased use of video and voice applications in business will help boost demand for large amounts of storage, which will create a need for fast connections to that storage — a tailor-made application for 10-Gigabit Ethernet.

And the promise of new applications continues to put upward pressure on network capacities. Joel Alleyne, chief information officer and chief knowledge officer at the Toronto law firm Border Ladner Gervais LLP, thinks possibilities such as desktop videoconferencing will sooner or later provide the impetus for organizations like his to look at 10-Gigabit Ethernet.

“”The promise of 10-Gigabit Ethernet is that I’m not constrained bandwidth-wise with the kind of service I can deploy,”” Alleyne says. For example, Borden Ladner Gervais currently conducts video conferences, but only using videoconferencing rooms and high-speed links among distant locations. Putting 10-Gigabit Ethernet links between the firm’s offices could help pave the way to deploying desktop videoconferencing, Alleyne says.

So what’s stopping Borden Ladner Gervais from going ahead with that right now? Not surprisingly, the answer is cost. The 10-Gigabit technology will have to get significantly cheaper than it is today before most corporate buyers will jump at it. How much cheaper? “”It needs to be comparable to what we’re paying today for 100 megabit,”” Alleyne says.

That is not likely to happen any time soon.

Today, 10-Gigabit Ethernet costs in the range of $70,000 per port. Quiros says he expects to see about a 20-per-cent decline in the cost of 10-Gigabit Ethernet in the first half of 2003, and a similar price drop in the second half of the year. Tidd predicts a rapid price decline over the next 18 to 24 months, making 10-Gigabit “”affordable to the enterprise,”” but says the technology will still demand a premium. Calamari projects a port cost of US$8,000 to US$10,000 within a couple of years.

Meanwhile, he notes, a weak economy is making many businesses more hesitant about shelling out for new technology than they might have been a couple of years ago.

Quiros says 10-Gigabit Ethernet is following the same price curve as 100-megabit and Gigabit Ethernet before it, although it entered the market at a price a bit higher than its predecessors had. “”The technology is significantly more complex than Gigabit Ethernet and the time gap between when the two were introduced is a little bit longer (than the gap between the 100-megabit and one-gigabit technologies),”” he explains.

One factor in extending 10-Gigabit Ethernet’s reach in the corporate market could be adapting it to run over copper wire. The initial standard supported only fibre, but there are some efforts to support copper.

COMING SOON: 10 GIG OVER UNSHIELDED TWISTED PAIR

An emerging standard called 10Gbase CX4 allows for 10-gigabit traffic divided into four 2.5-Gbps streams running over four separate twin axial copper cables, Quiros says. This can be used for short-haul links such as within a data centre. Grow says 10GbaseCX4 will allow 10-Gigabit connections over distances of 15 metres or so, and the working group developing it is aiming for completion by the fall of 2003.

Work is just beginning on 10GbaseT, a standard for running 10-Gigabit Ethernet over unshielded twisted-pair cable. The hope is to support Category 5e or Category 6 twisted-pair cabling, Grow says. The distance to be allowed by this standard has not been decided, but Grow expects it will definitely be more than 50 metres and might be about 100 metres. Completion of 10GbaseT will probably take about three years, Grow says.

But price drops are driven partly by volume, and since many people question whether 10-Gigabit Ethernet has a future beyond metropolitan networks and backbones, it may never reach the volumes necessary to drive prices down to where 100 Mbps is today. “”10-Gigabit plays mostly to a backbone infrastructure,”” Tidd says. “”By no means are we going to see it pushed beyond that in the years to come.””

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