Gigabit Ethernet looks to fit in

The use of gigabit Ethernet is being touted by vendors as the next best thing in high-speed networking, especially for enterprises which are deploying videoconferencing, data warehousing and back-up applications. The technology’s pricing is also a hot topic; since its introduction a few years ago, the price to implement gigabit Ethernet has dropped significantly, according to both vendors and analysts, and it will probably continue to drop.

But the networking market sees new technologies pop up all the time – sometimes more often than needed. And sometimes the most highly glorified technologies never seem to make a hard-hitting impression with enterprises. Such is the case with gigabit Ethernet, according to Dan McLean, a research manager at Toronto-based IDC Canada.

So what’s the big deal about gigabit Ethernet, anyway?

According to the Gigabit Ethernet Alliance, a group comprised of such high-tech firms as 3Com Corp., Nortel Networks and Intel Corp., gigabit Ethernet is Ethernet, only faster.

On the Alliance’s Web site, it indicates that Ethernet is defined by the frame format, the use of full duplex, the use of CSMA/CD, the use of flow control and the management objects defined by the IEEE 802.3 group. Because gigabit Ethernet employs all of these, it is Ethernet.

Don’t let your backbone slide

Vendors are all for the technology. In fact, Kelly Kanellakis, director of technology and part of the office of the chief technology officer at Enterasys Networks in Mississauga, Ont., said that gigabit Ethernet is “basically through our whole product line at this point.”

The company, a Cabletron spin-off, is seeing a lot of deployment in Canada, Kanellakis said, adding that the technology is becoming standard as an enterprise backbone technology for server connectivity.

“What most enterprises are doing is running gigabit Ethernet as their uplink and backbone technology. We’re not talking about gigabit Ethernet at the desktop at this point,” he explained. “But because it is a backbone technology, what we’re seeing…is it being deployed in preparation for convergence – so voice-over-IP and telephony-type installations, even video.”

He reiterated that he did not think a lot of organizations were fully utilizing their gigabit Ethernet right now, but are instead planning ahead and preparing for when they will, probably within the next two to three years.

“Enterasys customers in Canada are actually deploying it in just about every new installation that we see. I don’t think we do a design these days without looking at a gigabit backbone,” he added.

Enterasys focuses on larger enterprises, Kanellakis said, but that does not mean that smaller enterprises could not reap the benefits of the technology. It is at the price range where they can afford to deploy it, and pricing is still coming down due to volume and that the technology is becoming more available, he noted.

3Com is another vendor that is a believer in the technology, and demonstrated its commitment to it even more when it made a series of gigabit Ethernet product announcements last November. The launch included two families of switches and a new gigabit Ethernet over copper network interface card (NIC) for servers, according to Rick Gaskin, business networking specialist for 3Com Canada in Mississauga, Ont.

“I would say that, especially at 3Com, it would be one of our major projects for 2001. Gigabit Ethernet migration from fast Ethernet is probably one of the hottest things on the table. There’s other things that people are talking about, like wireless – and obviously wireless is hot – but right up there would be migrating our customers’ backbones to gigabit Ethernet,” he said.

The benefit for enterprises, aside from the pricing, is speed – a tenfold increase in performance right off the bat, according to Gaskin.

Where, oh where can it be?

But at this point in time, the need for that much speed is simply not a requirement for enterprises in Canada, according to IDC Canada’s McLean.

“I think that one of the issues is that it is just incredibly high-bandwidth technology,” he said. “And when you consider that most enterprises are utilizing 100MB, which is way more capacity than is needed for most enterprise businesses, (that) gives you a sense of how much gigabit Ethernet would be over-provisioning for a lot of companies.”

There could be exceptions, he added. For instance, a business that does a lot of real-time videoconferencing, or another high-bandwidth application, could benefit from the technology. But for the most part, McLean said gigabit Ethernet in the Canadian enterprise is something he is just not seeing.

“We do demand side surveys on this, and one of the questions that we ask is, ‘What are people implementing in terms of technologies?’, and I would say for the vast majority they’re still doing the migration to 100Mbps Ethernet. Gigabit is rare.”

One company that did take the gigabit Ethernet leap is Corel Corp. in Ottawa. It switched to gigabit Ethernet about a year ago, utilizing products from Enterasys and Cabletron.

“We do a back-up with IBM-Tivoli ADSM [ADSTAR Distributed Storage Manager] unit – it’s a storage manager,” explained Andy Chrysler, the network manager/systems manager for Corel. He said the company made the switch because it enabled it to move more over the network at a faster pace – meaning faster, more efficient back-up.

The technology was installed about a year ago, and right now is only in a small area. The company’s primary servers are running on gigabit, and Chrysler said he has even more plans for the technology.

“I’m actually planning on upgrading the whole network, hopefully this year, to go to gigabit for my uplinks for all my hub rooms,” he explained. “So we’re sort of in a star topology, where everybody comes to the main central hub. All the floors have their own switches in each closet, and right now we run three 100MB connections concurrently, like in a trunking group, and we’re probably going to replace that with one gigabit. We’re probably going to just go gigabit to the uplinks, which will allow me to go to switched 10/100 to the desktop instead of 10 right now. So basically…I’m (going to be) giving everyone a boost from 10MB to 100MB at the desktop and go gigabit from my uplinks and gigabit to my servers.”

He noted that he has done some testing on his own since the implementation, and is unable to fill the pipe on the server side. He explained that he has moved large files, and the best he could get was about 40 to 60 per cent usage. Of course, no one wants the pipe to fill up – but is all that extra space really necessary for an enterprise?

Almost a fit

Gigabit Ethernet is something McLean said is probably being more carefully considered by service providers, and companies that are in the business of providing communication services. If a company is providing customers with voice or data services, gigabit Ethernet would be ideal because of its cost and speed.

“Carriers are different. I think that that’s where the application for gigabit Ethernet is right now,” he said. “But understand, again, that their requirement is to transfer large amounts of data and voice for a lot of customers. So it makes sense there. But as an enterprise application, I don’t see it.”

When looking at Canadian carriers, McLean said that they are not “fully ramped up to it yet.” A lot of them are looking, and a lot of them are saying they think it’s interesting technology, but they haven’t replaced something like SONET, for instance, with gigabit Ethernet. He added that he thinks a lot of them are thinking about it, or at least building in Ethernet in strategic points within their networks.

But down in the U.S., things could be quite different. There are companies in the U.S. that could be employing many thousands of people, in which case gigabit would serve as a good backbone for that type of enterprise.

“In the U.S., you’re talking about much larger-scale companies than you would see in Canada. If you were to look at the companies in Canada that, say, employ more than a thousand or 1,500 people, it wouldn’t be very many – we’d be talking about hundreds of companies, not thousands like there would be in the U.S.,” McLean noted.

The next best thing

There is always the possibility that gigabit Ethernet could become more prevalent in the Canadian marketplace, but that depends entirely upon applications. If, for example, video were to become a mainstream application for enterprises, then the need would be there. Right now that is not an issue. There are some things which might help push the need for the technology – such as real-time, Internet-based training or distance learning.

“I think what is clear in Canada is the potential for Ethernet – so the fact that Ethernet scales up to gigabit speeds now, and people are talking about scaling it up to terabit speeds,” McLean said. “I mean, Canadian businesses in general haven’t anywhere near exhausted the potential of the technology. And what I mean by that is that they simply haven’t adopted it.”

But due to the innovations that occur with networking technology, it is fairly difficult to forecast exactly where those applications might be three years down the road.

“Sometimes the whole world can be changed in terms of where we think the industry is going based on the innovation that may happen at a certain point,” McLean explained. “And a good example of that is Ethernet itself.”

Going back seven or eight years ago, there was a lot of talk about Ethernet and the fact that there was really nowhere for it to go. ATM appeared to be the next big thing, because it had higher bandwidth capacity than Ethernet.

“And then all of a sudden what happened was, there were innovations that occurred within Ethernet that just made it a much higher transport technology,” McLean said.

The other issue was token-ring, which was at about the same capacity as Ethernet at the time but much more reliable, he said. A lot of people were thinking that token-ring was the way to go, because of its reliability and because it is a connection-oriented technology.

“Well, when you’re able to scale Ethernet up to the transport speeds that it can get to, then part of that solves the reliability problem and certainly as the price of that technology was so much cheaper than token-ring, that token-ring is virtually disappearing. It’s out there, but people are migrating away from it.”

McLean’s point: who’s to say what may come along in three years? There may be a whole different type of networking technology that suddenly sends Ethernet down a dead end. It’s just too hard to project.