Ethernet's future is now about much more than the next top speed: The engineers charting a path for the ubiquitous networking protocol are looking at several new versions to serve a variety of applications.
At a meeting last Thursday of the Ethernet Alliance, an industry group that promotes IEEE Ethernet standards, three major new projects were up for discussion.
To meet immediate demands in cloud data centers, there's a standard in the works for 25Gbps (bits per second). For the kinds of traffic expected in those clouds a few years from now, experts are already discussing a 50Gbps specification. And for enterprises with new, fast Wi-Fi access points, there may soon be 2.5Gbps Ethernet. That's in addition to the next top speed for carrier backbones and moves to adapt the technology for use in cars.
These efforts are all meant to serve a growing demand for Ethernet outside the traditional enterprise LANs for which it was originally designed. That means solving multiple problems instead of just how to get ever more bits onto a fiber or copper wire.
"What I'm hearing is lots of diversity. Lots of diversity in need, lots of diversity for the future," Ethernet Alliance Chair John D'Ambrosia said part way into the daylong meeting in Santa Clara, California. "We're moving away from an 'Ethernet everywhere' with essentially the same sort of flavor."
The EA's annual Technology Exploration Forum is a venue for discussing the kinds of technical details that many participants will go on to debate in various task groups of the IEEE 802.3 Working Group, which sets the official standards for Ethernet. Optical and electrical signaling, fiber strands and copper wires, processing power, energy consumption, heat, cost, and other issues all come into play in determining what to build and how.
Without diving too deep into those details, here are some of the new technologies brewing in Ethernet.
A 25Gbps standard may seem like a step backward, because 40-Gigabit and 100-Gigabit Ethernet already exist. But in fact, it's all about the need for more speed, specifically from servers in cloud data centers. Google and Microsoft are the biggest buyers of Ethernet now, largely because their cloud operations require so much data exchange between servers, according to Dell'Oro Group analyst Alan Weckel.
The key to 25-Gigabit Ethernet is that many of the components that could go into it are already developed: The 100-Gigabit standard is made up of four "lanes" of 25Gbps, so many of the same parts go into that high-end gear. That should mean higher production volumes for parts that go into both technologies, driving prices down.
Rallying around 25Gbps also gives network architects a logical way to build their data centers, with servers linking to switches at 25Gbps and the switches aggregating those connections into 100-Gigabit uplinks, Weckel said. That four-to-one ratio is what they're used to working with.
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