Ethernet grows into MAN

When the Peel District School Board went looking for a data provider to connect its 178 schools, it sought “flexibility” – service that would bow to its needs with greater bandwidth and reach as required. But according to the board’s IT leader, the traditional communications firms didn’t exactly bend over backwards for the contract.

“More traditional network providers might say, ‘Well, this is the service we offer in that neighbourhood. This is the tariff structure,’ basically making us slaves to their business model,” said Jim Smith, the board’s controller of IT services in Mississauga, Ont.

“If we determine two years from now that some of our schools are going to run an application that requires significantly more bandwidth than anyone of us had imagined, we want the only limiting factor to be our ability to pay for that bandwidth.”

To stave off limitations, the group chose Enersource Telecom as its data service provider. In doing so the board also chose a new type of carrier infrastructure: Ethernet. Although long associated with LAN space, Ethernet offers the flexibility some companies require from service providers.

Industry observers say Ethernet is making headway in the MAN space, and its advancement might serve the enterprise well. People point out that this technology brings to the metro market both operational and financial efficiencies unmatched by other transport mechanisms.

Smith said the school board chose Enersource Telecom for financial and operational benefits. A division of the Mississauga electricity firm Enersource Corp., Enersource Telecom is an upstart Ethernet metro area network (MAN) operator.

“We had an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with them, as they were building out their network,” Smith said. “That meant we could take advantage of some economic incentives and some flexibility, which was key for us. Flexibility was what we were looking for in a network build. They were able to provide that.”

Brad Randall, Enersource Telecom’s general manager, ascribes the network’s tractable nature to its underlying infrastructure: Ethernet, built on Foundry Networks Inc.’s Global Ethernet Metro solution. Randall said Ethernet offers easy access to bandwidth, as users require. He also said Ethernet spells lower costs for the service provider and its customers.

“I think people finally realize Ethernet is the way to go,” Randall said.

Ethernet’s charm is a matter of “price and total cost of ownership,” said Steve Parker, a Salt Lake City-based business development manager with 3Com Corp. He pointed out that compared to service based on synchronous optical network (SONET) technology, Ethernet offers a lower cost per megabit – a boon for enterprises seeking savings.

Dave Dobbin, executive-vice president of Telecom Ottawa, an Ethernet MAN provider and another Foundry client, said his company’s architecture provides users with greater granularity than do SONET-based systems.

“If the IT manager wants to put a higher priority on the voice packets or the application, he can choose to do that himself,” Dobbin said.

Laurie Gooding, an analyst with Trend Analysis in Walpole, N.H., said most IT managers are amenable to service providers using Ethernet.

“I think it boils down to the human factor. It’s a lot easier for a network manager to get his head around the WAN when there’s a technology he’s familiar with.”

But Gooding also has her doubts. She points out that Ethernet is somewhat tainted – not for technical reasons, but for its association with certain, now-cowed competitive local exchange carriers (CLECs). Circa 2000, a spate of new CLECs popped onto the telecom scene across North America. Some of them employed Ethernet in the backbone and promised to wrest from incumbent carriers significant market share, enough to take control of the service provider space.

Today, only a few of those newcomers remain in business. Thanks to this dubious association with bird-brained business plans, Ethernet invokes the image of the burdensome albatross for some. Gooding said the technology must fight for respect.

For carriers, “it’s not going to be, ‘Oh, well, [Ethernet equipment vendors] showed me this works really well.’ They’re going to see where it fits in the market. Does it belong to real players? Are they in it for the long haul?”

Brownlee Thomas also reserves praise for Ethernet, especially in this country. As Giga Information Group Inc.’s telecom analyst in Montreal, she figures Canada’s biggest carriers will eschew the technology.

“You have existing infrastructure already paid for as a regional or local access provider. I think Telus has given up maybe three per cent [of the market to competitors]. Bell has given up maybe seven per cent. What is the incentive for them to move from SONET onto Ethernet? Zero.”

Still, Dobbin from Telecom Ottawa said Ethernet is the right choice for his company and its clients.

“It’s easier to manage than the older technologies. It’s much easier to implement and install. It’s easier to configure…. It’s almost as easy as saying this: some 98 per cent of computers on the face of the earth use Ethernet as a networking standard. Why complicate things?”

Complexity was the last thing the Peel District School Board wanted from a provider.

“We were looking for a couple of things,” Smith said. “One is the ability to have some stability – technology we don’t have to forklift out every couple of years. But at the same time, we’re looking for something flexible that allows us to grow.”

Enersource Telecom’s Ethernet infrastructure did the trick, although Smith said the technology was not the defining factor in the board’s decision. It was the service provider’s modus operandi – not Ethernet, but attention to client needs – that truly made the grade.

“I think it probably has less to do with the technology than just a willingness to work with us, to understand our priorities and what’s key for us,” he said.