Mixed signals on need for 10 Gigabit Ethernet

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"Speedy delivery"

When the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. published the final version of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard in June, it set the stage for what many expect will be a fast-moving market.

Observers see high-end networking technology as a major force in both the local-area network and wide-area network environments within just two or three years. Market researchers at Dell'Oro Group are predicting shipments of more than 100,000 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports in 2004, from less than 5,000 this year.

They also expect 10 Gigabit Ethernet prices to follow the "normal" steep drop shown by lower-speed Ethernet products in the past, from about $39,000 per port now to less than $10,000 per port in 2004.

An expectation of future needs — rather than an actual immediate use for 10 Gigabit Ethernet -seems to be driving most of the early demand.

"The 10 Gigabit technology is a bit pricey right now," said Dave Wiltzius, a division leader at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, "but we have an aggressive road map for bringing much larger computers into the laboratory, and we'll start to see the need developing in a year or two's time. We wanted to have the experience of working with it when that demand finally does arrive."

Although laboratory officials have been testing early versions of 10 Gigabit Ethernet products for a year, they have worked with them in a "real-users, real-bits" production environment for only a couple of months. Wiltzius said the laboratory's eventual use of the high-end Ethernet technology could run include hundreds of 10 Gigabit ports.

In LANs, 1 Gigabit Ethernet has become the new norm for network backbones, but as bandwidth demands increase, even this won't be enough. Systems administrators have two options: Bundle 1 Gigabit Ethernet pipes together with each pipe needing its own strand of fiber, optics and electronics, or use a single 10 Gigabit Ethernet pipe.

When agencies extend 1 Gigabit Ethernet to desktop computers, the need for that kind of performance will grow.

"I see Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop coming soon, and you'll need 10 Gigabit Ethernet trunks for that," said Steve Mullaney, vice president of marketing for Force10 Networks Inc.

But others are not so sure that will happen. If you were to audit the use of networks in government right now, said Vince Spina, director of systems engineering for Cisco Systems Inc.'s federal operations, "I think you'd find that most people would say that the [1 Gigabit backbone] suffices for their needs. They are nowhere near maxing that out yet."

Wayne Wandel, a network administrator with the Agriculture Department's National Agriculture Statistics Service, would agree. Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop is not needed yet, he said, and probably won't be until high-speed video is delivered to desktop computers for such applications as PC-based videoconferencing.

"The first implementation of 10 Gigabit Ethernet will probably be for high-speed [data] backup and disaster recovery," he said, though he thinks it will still probably be several years before that demand develops.

The newer Ethernet technology is not expected to replace networking technologies already in place, such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode and Synchronous Optical Network (Sonet), but several factors will likely lead to 10 Gigabit Ethernet being preferred for future upgrades.

First, the Ethernet technology is already much cheaper than the equivalent OC-192 Sonet (with an optical carrier speed of 9.952 gigabits/second). Also, an "Ethernet end-to-end approach is a way to reduce complexity as well as management resources," Spina said.

"All government agencies are looking at even more limited staff and support," he said. "But everyone knows Ethernet."

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore.

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