Showdown coming on Ethernet standard to serve faster Wi-Fi

The IEEE is just starting to tackle 2.5G/5G Ethernet, and two groups think they have the answers

There's a standard in the works for Ethernet gear to feed faster Wi-Fi access points, but with rival industry groups pushing two different specifications, it might take a while to finish.

Wi-Fi is getting fast enough that Gigabit Ethernet can't keep up with the most advanced access points, which use 802.11ac Wave 2 technology. Users could go to 10-Gigabit Ethernet, but for most that would require installing more advanced cable. So the search is on for something in between that works on the most common kinds of cable over at least 100 meters.

Most likely you'll have a choice of 2.5Gbps (bits per second) and 5Gbps, and there's no debate there. Some vendors have already announced components and designs for such products, but there's no guarantee that systems built with parts from the two camps will work together. Enterprises want to be able to mix and match gear from any vendor they like, so the official IEEE group for Ethernet standards voted last month to form a task group to set a standard.

Now, the two rival camps will have to work out which technologies go into the standard and which don't. This isn't the first time that competing teams of companies have pushed different approaches before a common specification is set, but that kind of rivalry sometimes leaves potential buyers waiting.

One of the groups involved, the MGBase-T Alliance, officially announced its membership on Monday. Members include Avaya, Aruba Networks and Brocade Communications, as well as component vendors Broadcom and Freescale Semiconductor. The MGBase-T Alliance was formed in June.

The other big player is the NBase-T Alliance, formed in late October by Cisco Systems, Xilinx, Freescale and Aquantia, a company that's already making 2.5G/5G components.

Enterprises will probably be able to buy 2.5G/5G equipment starting in the second quarter of next year, Dell'Oro Group analyst Alan Weckel said. Considering that the task group to hash out the standard hasn't even met yet, there's a good chance those products will be based on pre-standard technology.

When vendors jump the gun, it can complicate and slow down standards development. The IEEE 802.11n specification took several years to set, partly because Wi-Fi manufacturers shipped pre-standard products to tap into demand for faster wireless LANs. The wait went on so long that eventually the Wi-Fi Alliance began certifying products based on a late-stage draft of the standard, the first time it had done so.

For a proposed IEEE standard to pass, it needs three-quarters of the votes in the task group. Officially, the members represent themselves and not their employers. But when vendors are divided up into separate camps, that consensus can be harder to reach.

"I'd like to say this is just noise, but the reality is, it's not," said John D'Ambrosia, chairman of the Ethernet Alliance industry group. "There clearly are players lined up on both sides."

Members of the Ethernet Alliance, which promotes IEEE Ethernet standards, agree there needs to be a single specification, D'Ambrosia said. "We've reached out to these groups to emphasize that point," he said.

One good thing about the competing efforts is that they show there's strong demand for the technology, he added.

Joe Byrne, senior manager for digital networking at Freescale, is hopeful the showdown won't take long. His company joined both groups because it wants to be able to serve all system makers.

"One of the groups will end up building more momentum behind it," by recruiting more big-name vendors, reaching out to users and participating in the standards process, Byrne said. "Things could get tipped pretty early on, even though there are competing standards. It's to nobody's benefit if it gets protracted too long."

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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