Gigabit Ethernet standard to cut high-speed costs

A Canadian chipmaker is pioneering an emerging standard for 10-Gigabit Ethernet modules that could bring the cost of the high-speed networks down to a more affordable range, accelerating their adoption.

The modules used in network interface cards, routers and other network devices are a significant factor in network costs. A smaller, lower-cost module standard called SFP+ is now in what backers hope will be the final months of the standard-setting process. According to Mitch Kahn, vice-president of marketing at Ottawa-based Quake Technologies, Inc., the standard should be completed later this year and the first commercial products based on the final standard could be shipping early in 2007.

George Cravens, a technical marketing official at network equipment maker D-Link Systems, Inc., in Fountain Valley, Calif., confirms that schedule, saying his company – a major supplier of network gear – is very interested in SFP+ “due to the promise of reduced power and cost. As the components become available,” he says, “we will work with our vendors to integrate the solution into our platforms.”

Despite its promise to reduce the cost of high-speed networking, making SFP+ work has been a challenge.

A key to making the SFP+ modules significantly smaller than the Xenpack, X2 and XFP modules typically used in 10-Gigabit Ethernet gear today is moving some of the electronics out of the module and placing it instead on the line card that holds the module. At the same time, Kahn explains, some circuitry has been eliminated altogether, which helps bring down the cost.

The problem, Kahn says, is that this requires transmitting a signal across the line card at 10 gigabits per second. It’s hard to do that without distorting the signal. The solution in the past has been to add a signal conditioning chip to clean up the distortion, but adding components to the line card increased the cost.

Quake’s answer is signal processing capabilities built into its SFP+ chip, called the QT2035S. Eliminating the need for a separate signal conditioning chip, this technology can clean up the distorted signal it receives. “We had to come up with some very advanced techniques to extract the original signal from the noise,” Kahn says.

Quake also figured out how to anticipate how the signal sent from its chip will be distorted as it travels across the line card, and pre-distort the signal to compensate so that a relatively clean signal reaches the destination.

According to Kahn, short-reach XFP optics for 10-Gigabit Ethernet today cost between $300 and $350 at wholesale prices, while Gigabit Ethernet modules are around $200. He predicts SFP+ can bring the cost for 10-Gigabit modules down to around $125. According to Quake, transitions to new and faster Ethernet standards in the past have usually come when the cost of connections for the new technology was around three or four times that of the established one.

Roberta Fox, president of Fox Group Consulting Inc., a telecommunications consultancy in Mount Albert, Ont., says 10-Gigabit Ethernet is getting attention mainly in the health care and education sectors so far. “What’s driving that is either big file transfers or imaging,” she says.

Reducing the cost of 10-Gigabit gear should help its adoption, Fox says, but price isn’t the only issue. “I see it as labour-sensitive to change it,” she says. Even if the faster equipment cost the same, there would be a cost of replacing older gear, and most organizations will not make that investment until there is a real need for the added speed.


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