Ethernet goes metro

If a little Ethernet is good, then a lot of Ethernet is even better. That's what officials in Richardson, Texas, and a growing number of their public-sector colleagues are deciding as they turn to this ubiquitous networking technology to establish sprawling, metropolitan-area networks.

With an upfront investment of about $2 million, Richardson buried about 30 miles of fiber cable and installed two-dozen Gigabit Ethernet switches to establish an IP-based network connecting town offices, fire departments, libraries and police operations. Combined with $800,000 worth of existing IP telephony servers, the city now runs all of its voice and data traffic via the network.

The monetary savings have been significant: Leased T1 network services offering comparable capabilities would have cost about $10,000 a month, said Steve Graves, chief information officer for the 95,000-person municipality. Even better, because the network is Ethernet-based, Graves and his staff didn't have to learn the intricacies of a new networking standard to make it all happen. "We don't have to have a lot of high-level technical people trying to keep up with new technologies," he said.

A growing number of federal, state and local entities are taking the metro Ethernet route to tighten wide-area communications and cut networking costs. They're building networks using switches from vendors such as 3Com Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Nortel Networks Ltd., the latter providing Richardson's hardware.

Others are opting not to lay their own fiber or optical connections for private networks and are instead subscribing to metro Ethernet services from Sprint, Verizon, SBC Communications Inc. and other vendors.

These services give public entities flexible bandwidth levels for a monthly subscription fee. The charges vary depending on bandwidth capacities, ranging from about $120 per megabit for 10-megabit connections to $20 for 100-megabit connections, or as low as $3 per megabit for 1-gigabit (1,000-megabit) connections, according to Sprint officials.

Economy and flexibility are turning information technology managers' heads, but not everyone who considers metro Ethernet is ready to commit just yet, said David Parks, senior analyst for U.S. telecommunications strategies at the Yankee Group, a Boston technology researcher.

"Metro Ethernet is definitely still in the early stages of adoption," he said. "It is being deployed selectively." Nevertheless, the technology's growth prospects are good. He pegs the current U.S. market at about $500 million and projects a 57 percent compound annual growth rate through 2008.

Driving this demand is the hunger for increased bandwidth by IT managers, who view metro Ethernet as an alternative to frame-relay or expensive Asynchronous Transfer Mode networks.

Although full of potential, metro Ethernet isn't fully mature as a service or in private networks. Still to come are standards for network-to-network interfaces that will allow service providers to guarantee performance when separate metro Ethernet networks are connected. And as users move to running time-sensitive voice and video via data networks, quality-of-service and prioritization tools are needed to avoid latency and jitter.

Nevertheless, simplicity makes metro Ethernet's future look bright. "Ethernet is easy to use and easy to maintain," Graves said.

Joch is a business and technology writer based in New England. He can be reached at ajoch@monad.net.

About the Author

Alan Joch is a freelance writer based in New Hampshire.

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