Speedy price drop

The time is coming when your enterprise network, even if it is running smoothly now, will start to develop cracks. The inevitable increase in the volume of data it has to handle will push it over the edge.

The obvious solution is to upgrade the network with fatter pipes. The good news is that the technology you will most likely use to do this — Gigabit Ethernet — has excellent performance characteristics and has become much more affordable to buy and deploy.

Gigabit Ethernet is not exactly new. The technical standard was published in 1999, but even a couple of years ago it was still pricey. In 2002, it would have cost about $200 per switch port to install it.

Now, the cost is down to less than $100 per port in some enterprise configurations. Network Interface Cards (NICs), which connect PCs and other devices to local-area networks, cost less than $50.

All the major networking companies, including Cisco Systems Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co., 3Com Corp., Foundry Networks Inc. and Extreme Networks Inc., have a range of Gigabit Ethernet switch products. Most computer manufacturers include Gigabit Ethernet connections in at least their higher-end systems, and it's a standard feature in products such as graphics and scientific workstations.

All of that competition and the plunging prices have finally had their impact. In the first quarter of this year, Gigabit Ethernet revenues exceeded those for 100 megabits/sec Fast Ethernet for the first time, according to the Dell'Oro Group.

It's the computer sitting on the typical end user's desk that's driving the demand for more network capacity and fueling the adoption of Gigabit Ethernet, said Mo Bakheit, practice manager for information assurance and mobility at GTSI Corp., which sells and designs networks for government agencies.

"Such things as enterprise resource planning and Microsoft [Corp.] applications at the client level are very bandwidth-hungry," he said. "Also, you now have convergence of voice and video on the network and collaboration applications, all of which make demands on bandwidth."

The fact that no viable competitor for Ethernet exists, at least for enterprise networks, boosts the popularity of Gigabit Ethernet. Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) technology was used for network backbones and still exists in certain legacy systems. But the emergence of Gigabit Ethernet and the attraction of a single technology to manage networks mean ATM will likely soon disappear as an enterprise technology.

However, some new security provisions may have to be put in place before Ethernet takes on this expanded role, said Andy Ramsey, director of systems engineering at Juniper Networks Inc. The Type 1 encryption used to transfer classified data across networks historically has been based on ATM. In some cases, modifications will need to be made to the network systems to use the same encryption with Gigabit Ethernet.

The next upgrade technology, 10 Gigabit Ethernet, is already on the market, but it's expensive. Dell'Oro officials noted that per-port prices have already fallen more than $30,000 since the end of 2002. Prices range between $6,000 and $8,000 per port, depending on the configuration of various vendors' products.

Only users with high-end needs should invest in 10 Gigabit Ethernet, said Ron Renwick, product manager for networking and cluster interconnects at Silicon Graphics Inc. "Anybody we speak to about going to 10 Gigabit Ethernet has already fully utilized their Gigabit Ethernet capacity," he said.

However, upgrades to Gigabit Ethernet and beyond shouldn't be looked at only as a way to keep up with bandwidth demands. They can help organizations prepare for better business practices. Argonne National Laboratory officials already run Gigabit Ethernet in their network backbone, for example, and they decided last year to move up to 10 Gigabit Ethernet, perhaps by the end of the next fiscal year.

Not all of the thinking about upgrades is driven by the lab's current application needs, according to Scott Pinkerton, Argonne's networking solutions manager. "We hope to gain advantage [with a faster network] when bidding on new research opportunities," he said.

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at hullite@mindspring.com.

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