Racing towards 10Gigabit Ethernet

A university data centre may not seem the place to adopt leading edge technology, given that publicly-funded institutes are chronically short of money.

But as Andrew McAusland, associate vice-president of instructional and IT services at Montreal’s Concordia University points out, universities have unique clients.

Every year some 12,000 new students and their new technology – laptops with faster wireless accessing high-bandwidth social networking applications, for example – demand online satisfaction. Which is why six months ago, McAusland started experimenting with 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Not a wholesale rip and replace, but in select spots—between some servers in the gateway, in places where there are large file transfers.

“We like to take things for a test drive first,” he chuckles.

But after several months, here’s his verdict: “I am not convinced there is a return on investment for us” for the time being and is not now expanding its use. For the time being, he feels his budget is better spent improving services on the infrastructure he’s got.

So if not now, five years after the IEEE approved the first of the 10GbE standards, when 10GbE become mainstream?

Soon, according to industry analysts.

The price per port is dropping, although not as fast as 1GbE did when it was introduced. But it is coming down.

In the second quarter of last year a 10GbE fibre port cost $2,800 (all figures in U.S. dollars), according to Gartner. In the third quarter it was $2,600 a port and three months later it was $2,300. That’s about a 10 per cent a quarter drop. Historically, Ethernet port prices dropped 35 per cent year over year when the technology became a commodity.

According to Mark Fabbi, an Uxbridge, Ont.-based Gartner vice-president of research who specializes in enterprise network infrastructure, there’s also a crude rule of thumb that the point an Ethernet technology reached its peak was when trippling the price of a port boughts 10 times the bandwidth.

During 2007, a fibre 1GbE port cost about $300, so by that measure today 10GbE costs almost eight times as much. Which explains why in the fourth quarter of last year of the 75 million Ethernet ports sold into the enterprise worldwide, according to Gartner, only 150,000 were 10GbE ports – or about two-tenths of one per cent.

Another way of looking at it is that of the $4 billion spent by enterprises on Ethernet ports last year, only $341 million was on 10GbE ports, about eight per cent of the spend. Obviously IT buyers still see it as an expensive technology.

Veteran network equipment manufacturers such as Nortel Networks, Juniper Networks and Cisco Systems declare their customers are showing an increased interest in 10GbE, although some are shy about producing sales figures.

But they and starups like Blade Network Technologies (BNT), a Santa Clara, Calif., a Nortel spin-off that specializes in making Ethernet switches for blade server manufacturers such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard and NEC, are certain mainstream adoption is not far off.

“We bet a lot on 10G adoption of growing more and more rapdily,” said Tim Shaughnessy, BNT’s vice-president of marketing. Its first generation of products was released a year ago, and the second generation, with more ports and virtualization support, could be released this year. It also just released Smart Connect, software that allows network managers to configure multiple switches as a single device.

By all accounts, it’s larger organizations, governments and universities that are leading the 10GbE way, using it in parts of data centres where applications such as video streaming, converged communications, animation or medical imagery generate bandwidth-busting files that can’t be handled even by aggregating several 1GbE ports. Virtualizing multiple applications on servers can also boost their output to justify 10GbE. In these situations its used for switch or blade server interconnects.

And speed isn’t the only advantage, points out William Terrill, an associate analyst at Info-Tech Research in London, Ont. It also slashes the number of cables snaking through the data centre, reducing potential switch-to-switch bottlenecks in addition to lowering the odds of human switching mistakes.

According to Info-Tech, prices are approaching $400 a port for 10GBASE-T (twisted pair) solutions, allowing even small enterprises think about using the technology. 10GbE is also appearing in products from some iSCSI SAN manufacturers such as Lefthand Networks and EqualLogic (now owned by Dell), although Terrill thinks that’s more for bragging rights than practicality at this point.

Tim Labie, vice-president for the Americas at Juniper Networks, notes that some organizations with three layer infrastructures think they can put 10GbE fibre straight from the core to the wiring closet, bypassing the distribution layer. Finally, 10GbE cost effective as a backbone between floors or buildings.

Many analysts and manufacturers say organizations are particularly pondering the value of 10GbE when they refresh their data centres. That’s the right time, says Sanjeev Gupta, director of Nortel’s Ethernet switching division, who advises network managers to start by running 10G uplinks from the wiring closet to core switches. “Enterprises need to start planning migration to 10G in campus cores or data centre cores, along with the next step, which is data centre aggregation or edge server connectivity,” he says.

But Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of enterprise research at the Yankee Group, has doubts many organizations need it yet for server connectivity. As a rule, every gigabit of bandwidth needs an equal amount of CPU power. Yet today most servers have 8Gb chips, he said. When reviewing infrastructure for the suitability of 10GbE, remember that there are a number of local 802.3xx standards, says David Zacks, a Cisco Systems engineer. These include copper twisted-pair (10 GBASE-T), copper (10GBASE-CX4), and short and long medium distance fibre (10 GBASE-SR and -LRM respectively). Those interested in using 10GbE for metro or backbone networking need to be aware of the 10 GBASE –LX4, -LR, -ER, -SW, -LW and –EW standards.

The most recently-approved standard is 802.3ap, which defines a backbone specification for blade servers and will allow the autoselection of multiple signalling mechanisms. According to Tim Shaughnessy of Blade Network Technologies, it will allow those running 10GbE to blades to stop using 16-pin XAUI interconnects, which use four 2.5Gbps copper wires, and move to a single 10Gpbs pipe. Chips recognizing 802.ap should be ready soon he said.

In terms of new products to look out for this year, Gartner’s Fabbi suggests watching for new top-of-rack switches from only not only from the usual manufacturers, but also from upstarts like Woven Systems, Teak Technologies and Blade Network Technologies. BNT’s Shaughnessy would only say that his company is “looking to expand our current offerings outside the blade server area.” Woven, which this month lured two Cisco Systems officials to take senior marketing jobs, makes an Ethernet Fabric switch that it says scales to more than 4,000 non-blocking ports, as well as a top-of-rack switch for server aggregation with four 10GbE uplinks.

Teak makes a switch module for IBM BladeCentre-H servers and a network interface card.

While 2008 will also see port prices continue to fall, Fabbi believes they won’t drop to the four-times multi

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