Ethernet marches towards telecoms domination

With the Metro Ethernet Forum launching a stamp of approval for carrier-class Ethernet services, the protocol could be destined to dominate WANs in the same way that it devoured the LAN market

Ethernet has taken another step towards becoming the protocol of choice for metropolitan telecoms networking, even though some experts remain unconvinced that businesses are genuinely keen to use it to connect their local networks together.

The Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) announced last week that it has launched its first standard. By letting telecommunications operators brand their Ethernet services as being compliant with this technical specification, the MEF hopes to drive forward the adoption of Ethernet as a carrier-class connectivity method within cities.

Nan Chen, MEF president, told journalists that the launch of the standard would help businesses to buy Ethernet-based wide area network (WAN) products that have been scrutinised by the telecoms industry. "It will provide vendors with the ability to provide solutions which deliver metro Ethernet services," explained Chen, speaking at the NetEvents 2003 European Press Summit in Nice.

Chen admitted, though, that there is currently no certification process to oversee the standard, which is called MEF Technical Specification -- Ethernet Services Model Phase 1. "It's something we want to do," he insisted. According to one source close to the MEF, a certification process is likely to be introduced next year.

Ethernet was created in 1973 at Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center as a way of allowing PCs and peripherals in one small area to communicate with each other. Since that time, it has become the connectivity method of choice for local area networks (LANs), driving out rivals such as Token Ring and ATM-on-the-LAN. Figures from the MEF state that 97 percent of all data traffic now begins and ends on an Ethernet network.

Supporters of metropolitan Ethernet say that it makes a lot of sense to use optical Ethernet to connect disparate Ethernet-based LANs together, rather than moving data onto another protocol as it moves between one LAN and another.

"Companies use Ethernet in their offices, so it's easier for them to use Ethernet to connect those networks together," Craig Easley, director of the Office of the CTO at Extreme Networks, told NetEvents. Easley added that service providers also benefit, as it is easy for them to change the bandwidth provided to customers, which could be as high as 10 Gigabit per second.

But other industry figures point out that there are several problems to overcome before Ethernet supplants existing network technologies such as ATM and Frame Relay.

Niall Gallagher, vice-president of optical Ethernet at Nortel Networks, believes that telcos that embrace metro Ethernet will need to ensure there is clear demarcation between their Ethernet services and a firm's LAN so that responsibility for network problems can be correctly attributed.

In addition, potential customers must be satisfied that metro Ethernet solutions are scalable, as the original protocol wasn't designed to cope with having to interconnect many millions of notes on one network.

There's also disagreement about how much demand there really is for metro Ethernet. While its supporters claim that major telcos are dragging their feet to avoid losing valuable revenues from existing connectivity methods like leased lines, one analyst told NetEvents he wasn't convinced that firms really are desperate to use Ethernet to run their WANs.

"They're not clamouring for metro Ethernet -- those that are demanding it are doing so because service providers are telling them it will be cheaper than their existing services. If businesses were actually clamouring, then large telcos would be showing more interest," said Bhawani Shankar, principal analyst at Gartner.