Has Gigabit Ethernet come of age?

To the LAN - and beyond...

To the LAN - and beyond...

OK, so Buzz Lightyear would have demanded a catchier catchphrase, but is it an accurate assessment of how far we've come with this technology? Heather McLean has been casting her eye over the market... Gigabit Ethernet has been getting good grades. Its latest report card shows it prospering in local area networks (LANs) and advancing on new territories outside its most popular domain - starting with the metropolitan area network (MAN), and the fibre-centric wide area network (WAN) thereafter. With even higher bandwidth under development in the form of 10 Gigabit Ethernet the evolution of this standard has been surprisingly painless. In short, this pipe is fat, fast and cheap, leading to rumors that it may be the packet protocol to push Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) and its circuit-switched cronies out of their exclusive oasis they call the WAN. Circuit-switched technologies traditionally utilised by carriers are slow and expensive to maintain when compared to Gigabit Ethernet. Ethernet is almost the de facto standard for the world's LANs. The advent of its fatter version is opening up the transfer of WAN data from ATM, frame-relay or packet over SONET/SDH to a potentially more efficient and cheaper method. Gigabit Ethernet is tempting carriers to use it in the MAN as it does not require the protocol conversion of packet-to-circuit or the heavy maintenance that currently pushes overheads and service charges up with the dominant ATM. Even Andrew Rufener, ambassador to the ATM Forum and director of technology for EMEA at Marconi, said: "Service providers are gradually moving away from circuit-switched technologies such as SONET/SDH to packet-switched solutions." Peter Hulleman, research analyst at IDC, agrees that Gigabit Ethernet is gaining in popularity. "Ethernet is standardized, equipment-compatible and is getting cheaper all the time. Everything is moving towards Ethernet, even ATM," he said. Rufner said although ATM is moving towards new carrier requirements, Ethernet "is starting to make inroads in the MAN as a cost-effective switching layer because of multi protocol label switching [MPLS]". And there you have it: Gigabit Ethernet allows networks to become one fat pipe running from the LAN to the MAN and - according to future take up by the market - to the home and WAN as well. To increase its market acceptance, Intel is pushing products for Gigabit Ethernet over category 5 copper cables, the legacy standard in stark contrast to fibre-optic cabling. Nigel Towell, spokesman for Intel, noted a server implementation optical network using Gigabit Ethernet is three times more expensive than one using copper. And make that more expensive by a factor of five if running the networking technology to all desktops. Towell stated: "The key to the transition from 100Mbps Fast Ethernet to Gigabit is providing it without making people have to budget - then they are more likely to have Gigabit as standard." However, IDC's Hulleman said Gigabit Ethernet is not necessary for the majority of users: "Most people have standard 10Mbps connections to their network and don't need gigabit speed to their desktop. Companies like Intel are saying the Gigabit Ethernet market will take off by 2003 but I predict 2005 at the very earliest." Hulleman said the protocol's primary use will be to hold up network backbones for Fast Ethernet, running 10 times slower than the 1000Mbps fat pipe. He added: "Gigabit Ethernet needs a killer app to persuade people to invest in broadband for the desktop. Only data centres, medical centers and universities use heavy enough bandwidth to bother." As a LAN technology, Ethernet is often accused of packet-loss, bottlenecking problems and a lack of quality of service (QoS). Now its developers at the IEEE intend to take Ethernet out of the LAN and into the WAN these issues are becoming more pressing. Rufener from the ATM Forum added: "The issues for Gigabit Ethernet at the moment are how to get the services people are making money out of from legacy systems on to a carrier network plus how to control operations, administration and maintenance [OAM] in an Ethernet solution." "As an overall solution to deliver multi-services, the architecture is just not ready," Rufener said of Gigabit Ethernet "The 20 per cent of services such as voice that make money for people are controlled by ATM as it delivers QoS, which Gigabit Ethernet does not." ATM will coexist with Gigabit Ethernet according to Rufener, rather than be pushed to the back of the wardrobe. He stated: "Gigabit Ethernet and 10 Gigabit Ethernet will not bite into ATM's territory as they are not competing. QoS is an issue that Gigabit Ethernet is unlikely to overcome. ATM will continue to provide the QoS and Gigabit Ethernet or DWDM the bandwidth." Gigabit Ethernet will be used to fortify the backbone of LANs and MANs and may intrude into traditionally expensive circuit-switched networks as it offers a fast and cheap alternative. However, as yet Gigabit Ethernet and its even fatter younger sibling 10 Gigabit Ethernet look weak and unproven when compared to the solid examples set by ATM, SONET/SDH and Frame Relay. The technology has many admirable features and will cement its place in the market when applications for such huge bandwidth come along. Then Gigabit Ethernet will become a corporate must-have. But don't hold back on the old stuff in the interim. This may be a long wait.