Intel and Cisco are promoting Gigabit Ethernet to office desktops with low prices and joint marketing, but analysts say the speed is not needed as most users do not use the 100Mbit/s they currently have. If Gbit is widely installed, this will be the last time Intel can add value to a NIC so easily, as copper cabling will have reached its limit.
"10/100 is not dead yet, but we'd like to drive it that way", said Nigel Towell, head of marketing at Intel's UK LAN access division, issuing a bold prediction that 15 percent of desktops would be using Gigabit by the end of 2002. Intel launched desktop NICs at $99 which autosense between 10Mbps 100Mbps and Gigabit Ethernet. Server NICs have been reduced to a low profile, so rackmount servers can hold more of them.
The company abandoned development of its own switches earlier this year in favour of a partnership with Cisco, which lets the two offer shared technical support and price reductions for companies buying kit from both. They also have a joint website.
Of course, this begs the question of what people might want with a Gigabit on the desktop, which Towell admitted was a chicken and egg question. "There are Gigabit apps now," he said, meaning that anything requiring 120Mbps or even 105Mbps would warrant an upgrade to the full Gigabit.
The most sensible answer on offer was carrying storage networks alongside existing traffic using iSCSI. "Let the storage go anywhere on the network," said Towell. Less convincing was his talk about carrying voice traffic on the LAN. This takes almost no bandwidth, and could be run quite happily on current networks if users actually wanted it.
The key to the easy sales Cisco and Intel are hoping for is the fact that existing Cat 5 copper installations will mostly run Gigabit unchanged, so the upgrade is only a change of hardware. However, Gigabit is the end of the line for Cat 5, and also for copper, it seems, so pushing this upgrade will cause users to ask what next.
"Users ask us what cabling to install," said Ian Keene, a vice president in Gartner Research. "They want to be OK for two generations, but Cat 5 has nowhere to go after Gigabit."
The question is equally pressing for Intel - the moves from 10 to 100Mbps and on to 1Gbps have staved off the price pressure on NIC cards. The company will have to be very creative to find another upgrade to keep margins in two years' time.
Cisco's rivals questioned the value of the joint marketing approach, suggesting users would still pick and choose, as other equipment was validated with the Intel NICs: "Most customers purchase and install servers and PCs on a different cycle to their network installation, so joint marketing deals don't help," said Martin van Schooten, European director for Extreme Networks. "The went with the biggest vendor, but they are not necessarily the best."