10G Ethernet building momentum

This year, the light meets the fibre in terms of getting 10G Ethernet products tested for prestandards compliance, say some engineers behind the technology.

Almost a year after its inception, the 10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance (10GEA) expects to see the fruits of its labours, with vendors shipping 10G Ethernet modules and switches to service provider and enterprise customers by year-end. The result could lead to ultrahigh-speed, Ethernet-based WAN services from service providers and highly scalable, multigigabit LAN backbones. All of this, despite the fact that a 10G Ethernet standard is a year away from ratification.

The 10GEA was formed last February to promote standards work being done by the IEEE 10G Ethernet task force, known as the 802.3ae working group. The 10GEA also provides resources for 10G Ethernet technology development. Originally comprising seven founding member companies, including 3Com Corp., Cisco Systems Inc., Extreme Networks Inc. and Intel Corp., the organization now includes more than 100 companies.

The group is helping outline technologies for transmitting 10Gbps of Ethernet traffic across 100 to 300 metres of multimode fibre-optic cable and as far as 2 to 40 kilometers over single-mode fibre. The IEEE task force, which does the reviewing and approval of 10G Ethernet standards, expects to have the standard approved by March 2002.

Tony Lee, president of the 10GEA, said his organization has helped push the technology along.

“An industry consortium like Gigabit [Ethernet Alliance] or 10GEA facilitates meetings outside of IEEE meetings,” which are held infrequently, he said. By providing another forum for working out technical details and organizing ideas on the standard, he said, “the alliance could be reducing the standards efforts anywhere from six months to 18 months.”

Lee expects 10G Ethernet development to move from the drawing-board to actual product testing by the second half of this year, thanks to efforts by vendors such as Cisco, Extreme, Enterasys and other 10GEA members.

“The testing should start when multiple vendors have products out in the market,” Lee said. “But the work for forming such test committees should start very soon,” likely by the end of this quarter. The first products to be tested by the alliance will probably focus on the metropolitan-area network service provider market, he said.

It has also been approximately a year since the IEEE created the 10G Ethernet task force. According to the task force chairman Jonathan Thatcher, the task force, with Version 2.1 scheduled to be ready for a ballot in March, recently approved draft Version 2.0 of the standard.

Thatcher said his task force had its hurdles to overcome in the past year, but was able to resolve key issues, such as making 10G Ethernet transmittable over SONET cabling (which will be essential for 802.3ae deployment in WANs), and defining the types of fibre-optic cable the standard would support. “We knew this would be a particularly stressful process,” Thatcher said of the latter issue.

A rift had surfaced in the task force last summer about whether 802.3ae would exclusively support expensive single-mode fibre-optic cable, or include less-expensive multimode fibre, which is more commonly found in companies, such as in legacy FDDI deployments.

Thatcher said the group plowed through 26 physical layer proposals on how to implement the LAN and WAN PHYs (SONET- and non-SONET-compatible specifications for the standard). The group settled on eight physical port types, which included both types of fibre. With these fundamental details finalized in draft 2.0, Thatcher said he foresees a push of products from GEA members in the coming months.

Analysts expect to see shipments of 10G Ethernet ports trickling out this year with larger volumes to come as the standard is solidified. Market research firm International Data Corp. predicted that approximately 230,000 10G Ethernet ports will ship by year-end. That number should jump to more than four million ports by year-end 2004, the firm forecasted.

Tere’ Bracco, a market researcher with Current Analysis Inc., said companies will eventually migrate to 10G Ethernet backbones, with gigabit to the desktop to support new applications such as video. “It will probably be one of the quietest transitions” in terms of industry fanfare and reaction from users, she said. “A lot of noise was made when we went from Ethernet to Fast Ethernet. Not as much noise was made when we went from 100Base-T to Gigabit. When we go from Gigabit to 10 Gig, people will probably say, ‘I thought we already did that.’ “

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