10G still prepping for big dance

While not yet a technology for the masses, more corporations are adopting 10G Ethernet as prices fall and vendors refine their 10G product portfolios.

Whether 10G Ethernet is ready for widespread corporate deployments in switches, wiring closets and desktops is debatable. But what’s inarguable are the changes in the technology over the past few years and efficiencies in manufacturing that have decreased prices by more than 85 per cent since 10G gear was introduced in 2002.

While the average 10G Ethernet port cost more than US$55,000 in 2002, that price dropped to US$15,000 per port a year ago and now averages about US$7,500, according to Synergy Research Group. At the same time, port shipments of 10G Ethernet have increased; only 1,000 ports were shipped in all of 2002, while more than 15,000 were sold in the first half of this year.

The lower prices for 10G Ethernet are the result of less-expensive optical components from suppliers. One area of advancement has been in 10G Ethernet physical layer connections — the lasers that shoot and receive transmissions of light over fiber. Newer modular port technologies, such as XENPAC and XFP modules, are examples of these lower-cost ports.

“We’ve seen lower costs on the optical part of it with the development of new optics like XENPAC and other kinds of optics that are less expensive to manufacture,” says Richard Nelson, director of computing at the University of Southern California’s Information Sciences Institute (USC-ISI). The Los Angeles organization, the computer research arm of USC, runs many Foundry Networks 10G Ethernet switches in its backbone and to connect to other USC campuses.

Tighter-designed components also has led to switch companies offering multi-port 10G Ethernet blades that are non-blocking and relatively inexpensive. Vendors are packing up to four full-duplex, non-blocking ports onto one card with up to 40Gbps of bandwidth between the modules.

“The four-port blade is really popular,” says Joshua Johnson, an analyst with Synergy Research Group. Cisco Systems Inc., Enterasys Networks Inc., Extreme Networks Inc., Force 10 Networks Inc. and Foundry Networks Inc. offer such a blade for their respective switch chassis. “That technology has allowed vendors to lower the per-port price below US$10,000,” he says.

Price reductions in 10G Ethernet gear have not been limited to switches. Prices also are dropping for 10G server network interface cards (NIC). While Intel Corp. debuted its 10G Ethernet NIC in March, priced at about US$8,000, vendors such as S2IO Inc. and Chelsio Communications Inc. now offer 10G NICs as low as US$2,000.

Another potentially price-lowering technology just around the corner is 10GBase-T. This will let 10G Ethernet run over Category 6 cabling up to 330 feet. Although this standard is not expected to be approved until 2006, vendors already have announced products or have products in development. Solarflare Communications Inc., a maker of transceiver components for Ethernet switch vendors, says it has a chip that can run 10G Ethernet over a Category 5e cable up to 330 feet (no release date has been set). Also anticipating 10G over unshielded twisted pair (UTP) cabling is Krone, which makes structured cabling systems. Krone offers a Category 6 cabling product the company says will be compatible with 10GBase-T. Switch vendors such as Cisco and Foundry are more mum on 10GBase-T developments.

“It’s still a ways out there,” USC-ISI’s Nelson says of 10G over copper. “As with any kind of Ethernet technology that moves from fiber to copper, distance limitations are a concern. But it does give the potential for lower cost on the interface side.”

Analysts say users who held off on first-generation 10G gear made the right move.

Core LAN switches installed in businesses more than 2 years old might not handle full 10G Ethernet because the chassis were limited to about 8Gbps of bandwidth between slots and the switch backplane. Synergy’s Johnson says most major switch vendors have introduced next-generation switch platforms over the past 18 months that let users fully use 10G Ethernet.

“It really paid to wait and get the non-blocking backplane, which you really need for it to work well,” Johnson says.

But while prices are falling, 10G Ethernet still accounts for only about one per cent of the Ethernet switch market in terms of port shipments so far in 2004.

“10 Gigabit will look like a good investment a few years from now,” Johnson says.

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