The Road to 100 Gigabit Ethernet

by Sean Michael Kerner

Thought 10 GbE was it for Ethernet? Think again.

For most global enterprises, Ethernet is the technology that connects everything and delivers bandwidth for all needs.

The highest bandwidth commercially available via Ethernet is 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10 GbE), but a grassroots effort led by Force10 Networks is now hoping to improve that speed all the way up to 100 Gigabit or more.

100 GbE is seen by Force10 as something that will help meet the future bandwidth needs of enterprises and could benefit a wide array of industries, including cable and other carriers, as well as content providers.

Don't expect to see 100 GbE anytime soon, though; it's likely not to see the light of day until at least 2010.

Stephen Garrison, vice president of corporate marketing at Force10 Networks, said that 10 GbE took five years from start to finish to become a standard. He expects that 100 GbE would take at least a similar amount of time to become a full standard. It's still very early days for 100 GbE at this point.

"A group of companies have formed to approach the IEEE to get a vote within the IEEE body to start a standard and that's really where we are," Garrison told internetnews.com.

The vote, if it happens, would occur at the earliest in July.

The process then to becoming a full standard is a long and drawn out one that could take five or more years. Garrison explained that the first part of the standard will look at technical and economic feasibility, as well as LAN and WAN opportunities.

One thing that will be up for discussion is the actual speed. As this is still a young effort, 100 GbE may or many not end up being the final speed specified in the specification.

Through development studies conducted during the first year or so, Garrison expects that they'll be a shakeout on what the actual speed should be -- whether it's 80 GbE, 100,120 or even 160 GbE.

"Force10 is a big believer that 100 Gig is the right step for Ethernet, but that hasn't been decided yet," Garrison said.

Based on some initial surveys and research though, apparently there is a real demand already for a higher bandwidth Ethernet. Some end users surveyed by Force10 are already trunking 8 to 10, 10 GbE Ethernet pipes and big data centers and carriers are already beginning to see bandwidth bottlenecks.

Before becoming a standard 100 GbE will have to overcome a variety of challenges. Not the least of which is cabling. If enterprises need to lay down new cable to take advantage of 100 GbE it may well prove to be a significant barrier to adoption.

"It's way too early to predict what kind of cable needs will be out there until we do more homework," Garrison said. "Though we'll not necessarily have to reinvent cable and laser-optic devices from the ground up, we're hoping to leverage the installed base if we can."

Though not yet officially supporting 100 GbE, the recently formed Ethernet Alliance is helping out a bit. The Ethernet Alliance is a group of vendors that are supposed to help promote adoption and deployment of Ethernet technologies.

Garrison noted that the Ethernet Alliance has started a track called the High-speed study group in which some of the grassroots work is happening. Among that group, Garrison estimated that 70 percent of the systems vendors agree with Force10's assessment of the need for 100 GbE.

Even though it's not yet a standard, 100 GbE already faces competition. Infiniband is a low latency I/O interconnect that is already making headway in supercomputing and enterprise storage with current performance of 10 Gbps and a roadmap that leads to 120 Gbps.

Garrison argued that users that care about Infiniband typically have different usage requirements than Ethernet.

"People that care about Infiniband are looking at tightly coupled synchronous models that require the compute nodes to share information partially through the computation so it's more real time," Garrison said.

Though Infiniband currently has a significant advantage over Ethernet in terms of latency, that advantage may not always be there.

"You're going to see some things happen this year with Ethernet latency really dramatically falling to the level of Infiniband," Garrison said.

"We think that the enterprise over time is going to stick with Ethernet."

Article courtesy of internetnews.com

This article was originally published on Wednesday Feb 8th 2006