Wide-area Ethernet said to be easier to use, cheaper than traditional technologies

A quarter century after Robert Metcalfe developed it as a local-area network protocol, Ethernet’s reach is still getting wider.Richard Mahony, senior analyst at research firm Ovum in London, projects the market for wide-area Ethernet services will increase about five-fold in the next five years. Nan Chen, president of the Irvine, Calif.-based Metro Ethernet Forum, says Ethernet technology has been enhanced over the past few years to make it more suitable for wide-area services, sparking a growth in interest among major telecommunications carriers around the world.
Here in Canada, the incumbent carriers have been offering wide-area Ethernet services for several years and see the market growing.
Montreal-based Bell Canada started moving into the Metro Ethernet market in the mid-1990s, says Kate Batty, senior director of product management for small and medium business at Bell. The MUSH sector — municipalities, universities, schools and hospitals — were early adopters because they often have several locations within a moderate-sized geographic area, she says, but Ethernet’s appeal in wide-area networks has spread to all sorts of businesses today, and Bell offers Ethernet connections reaching right across the country.
Ethernet services account for about five per cent of the Canadian wide-area network market, says James Levy, director of product marketing at Burnaby, B.C.-based Telus Corp.
Dave Dobbin, president of Toronto Hydro Telecom Inc., the subsidiary of Toronto’s electrical utility that offers high-speed telecommunications services, says a new generation of carrier-grade Ethernet equipment is elevating the technology to a new level. For instance, the latest equipment can fail over from one management blade to another without interrupting communications.

large firms use ethernet to backup data centres

Levy says customers are now running applications with specific network performance requirements — for example, the ability to stay below certain levels of latency and jitter.
“The foundation technology has reached a maturity that allows us to provide carrier-grade service with LAN-grade functionality,” Levy says.
Reinforcing the evolution of Ethernet equipment and services, the Metro Ethernet Forum has set up a program of certifying both equipment and service providers. Sixteen vendors have already had 39 products certified under the first phase of the Carrier Ethernet Certification Program, Chen says. In the second phase, which was launched in October, the forum has begun certifying service providers as well. No carriers have been certified yet, says Chen, but major U.S. carriers such as AT&T, Verizon, Qwest and Time-Warner are participating, as are a number of prominent European companies, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. in Japan, China’s Huawei Technologies Co., Ltd., and China Telecom Corp. Ltd., and others.
In the business world, Chen says, wide-area Ethernet is primarily used for high-speed connectivity among branches of large organizations and for backups from data centres to remote sites. In the consumer world, carriers are exploring its use to provide “triple-play” combinations of services to households. And a third market is emerging: backhaul for wireless networks.
Mahony says customers like using Ethernet over the wide area because of its familiarity and its cost advantages. “Compared to (Asynchronous Transfer Mode), an Ethernet WAN service would be 35 to 60 per cent cheaper,” he says. “IT managers are comfortable with the technology. They’ve been working with Ethernet in the LAN for many, many years.”
Added to that, Mahony says, Ethernet in the WAN makes it possible for customers to buy the services they need in smaller increments. And it opens up the possibility of virtual LAN stacking, which gives the customer better control of applications by making it possible to allocate sections of the network to different applications. That addresses issues like quality of service, an important consideration in particular for voice over IP.
Toronto Print House, a 44-year-old printing business with more than 60 locations across the country, turned from Integrated Services Digital Network (ISDN) lines to a wide-area Ethernet service from Bell Canada about four years ago in order to get enough capacity to handle large image files that the company needs to transfer among locations. The company also uses the service for communications and other data transfer among locations, and is looking at the possibility of using it for inter-office collaboration, says George Harper, director of IT at Toronto Print House.
The key advantages of Metro Ethernet for Toronto Print House were scalability, speed, continuity and cost, Harper says. By providing bandwidth on demand, he says, the Bell service makes it much easier to distribute large files, some of which were too much for the previous ISDN connections and had to be put on disks and sent by courier.
Wide-area Ethernet turned out to be more reliable than ISDN, Harper adds, and while it is slightly more expensive at first glance, Toronto Print House is able to leave all of the management to Bell. “When you look at the cost of manageability,” he says, “the ISDN would have been higher.”
Ethernet in itself was not a big consideration for Kruger Inc. The Montreal-based pulp and paper company moved its national wide-area communications to Telus’ multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) network about two and a half years ago, after a three-year contract with Telus using older technology. The service puts Ethernet devices at the end points, says Frank Whitney, manager of technical services at Kruger, but “that in itself is not what sold us. What sold us is the fully meshed nature of the traffic.”

disaster recovery made easier

That means, for one thing, that traffic can be routed quickly around problems anywhere in the network. That’s a big improvement, Whitney says, because it means Kruger’s Montreal head office no longer constitutes a single point of failure. Previously, a problem at headquarters would have meant none of the branches on the network could talk to each other. Now communications among other locations would be unaffected by a problem at head office, and “if this building disappears off the map, it would be fairly simple to redirect the traffic to our disaster recovery facility,” Whitney says.
Another benefit of the network is the ability to assign different priorities to different types of traffic, a feature Kruger uses to give precedence to Telnet traffic. Whitney also says the network’s overall reliability has been “measurably better” than what Kruger had before. The transition to the MPLS technology has taken some time — it was completed only recently — due, he believes, to some “growing pains” within Telus’ MPLS network.
With Ethernet now solidly established as a contender in the WAN, carriers have begun looking for ways to build on it. “Ethernet is not just a service,” says Batty, “it’s really a building block for customers and Bell Canada.”
Bell’s ProConnect service builds IP VPNs on top of an IP core with Ethernet access. For customers with more complex requirements, she says, this means Bell can help configure the network and manage it on the customer’s behalf. And Bell provides QoS capabilities to ensure high-priority traffic gets the treatment it requires.
Telus is taking its Ethernet offerings beyond single customers to “communities of interest.” Take the oil patch for example. Oil producers searching for new supplies work with geophysical consultants. Large amounts of data flow back and forth on a daily basis. In the past this material would have had to be placed on disk or tape and exchanged by courier. But with high-speed network links between producer and consultant, the courier can be eliminated.

hosted security services reduce costs

The trouble is that there are multiple producers and multiple consultants, Levy explains, and setting up many separate links is inefficient. The solution is for Telus to link the many players with a single physical network, and then create virtual private networks to allow each combination of partners to have a separate, secure communications channel.
Toronto Hydro Telecom is in the midst of a push to build new services on its high-speed network. Among them, Dobbin says, is a security service that provides managed VPN and firewall services hosted by Toronto Hydro Telecom, allowing one firewall installation to serve multiple customers more economically than they could provide their own services. The company also recently launched a VoIP service in partnership with Toronto-based OneConnect Inc., running over its Ethernet network.
Dobbin is also planning a storage utility service — a large storage facility will let customers “buy disk by the terabyte” and connect it to their data centres via Toronto Hydro’s network.
When Ethernet first began to move beyond the LAN, it was widely referred to as Metro Ethernet. But that term only tells part of the story. There are no real technical limitations on the distance over which Ethernet can operate, Chen notes. Both Telus and Bell say they already provide some of their customers with Ethernet services extending right across the country. “We are at the very beginning of it,” Mahony says, “but we expect to see more aggressive adoption of it within 2007 and 2008.”

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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