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Is your Ethernet fast enough? Four new speeds are in the works

Stephen Lawson | Oct. 20, 2014
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.

Having building blocks in multiples of 25 will become more important as cloud data centers age, Weckel said. It should let network engineers reuse technology as needs and speeds grow.

"Right now, all clouds are greenfield, but as the cloud matures, and actually has a real business model and has to actually talk to Wall Street and explain the billions of dollars that they spend on every data center, you're going to see reuse become very important," Weckel said.

By contrast, 40-Gigabit Ethernet is made up of four lanes of 10-Gigabit Ethernet, a technology that the cloud giants are now outgrowing, Ethernet Alliance's D'Ambrosia said. They need more than 10Gbps for each server, even as average enterprises start to connect more servers at that speed.

Google, Microsoft and several prominent networking vendors formed a group in early July to promote standardization of 25Gbps and 50Gbps Ethernet, saying they couldn't wait for the IEEE to finish a standard. Later that month, the IEEE started its own 25Gbps task group and said it might be done in as little as 18 months. On Thursday, D'Ambrosia said he doesn't necessarily agree with that forecast but he's optimistic. "Consensus is forming quickly in the industry," he said.

2. 50-Gigabit

Work is also beginning on a 50Gbps specification, which could be the next speed offered for linking servers in data centers. Both servers and high-performance flash storage systems will drive a need for something more than 25Gbps in the biggest data centers in a few years, Weckel of Dell'Oro said.

At Thursday's event, attendees debated whether to seek a 50Gbps standard or go all the way to a single-lane system for 100Gbps. A 50Gbps specification is more within reach, said Chris Cole, director of transceiver engineering at Finisar. For a 100Gbps standard today, "you're pushing the components," Cole said. He expects to see standard 50Gbps products starting in 2016.

3. 2.5-Gigabit

It may not sound very fast, but 2.5-Gigabit Ethernet might help companies fill their buildings with very fast Wi-Fi. It's being proposed specifically as a tool to help enterprises' wired infrastructure keep up with wireless access points that increasingly form the edge of those networks.

The latest Wi-Fi technology, IEEE 802.11ac, can operate at more than 1Gbps — much more, with certain configurations. With that much traffic going over the air, the Gigabit Ethernet links that most enterprises use to connect their access points to the wired network could become a bottleneck, said Kamal Dalmia, vice president of sales and marketing at Aquantia.

Upgrading to 10-Gigabit Ethernet would give networks plenty of bandwidth, but most companies don't have the right kind of cable to do that, Dalmia and other participants said. A 2.5Gbps version of Ethernet would work on commonly used Category 5e and Category 6 cable over the standard distance of 100 meters, so users could go beyond Gigabit Ethernet without the cost of pulling new cable.


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