Ethernet vendors racing to meet demand

Mobile and cloud computing are pushing bandwidth needs faster than technology development

Ethernet vendors will need to develop faster products more quickly to keep up with the demand being created by mobile and cloud computing, some participants at an industry group meeting said on Tuesday.

The fast-growing use of mobile devices, fueled by tablets and cloud services, is rapidly increasing traffic on carrier backbones and data-center networks, said industry leaders and observers at the Ethernet Alliance's Technology Exploration Forum in Santa Clara, California.

The traffic is growing so fast that vendors can only stay two or three years ahead of carriers' needs with each new generation of Ethernet, forcing service providers to replace expensive gear more quickly than they want to, said Joel Goergen, a distinguished engineer at Cisco Systems.

To meet the needs of service providers and users 10 to 12 years into the future, the industry needs to dramatically accelerate its technology advancement, Goergen said.

"You need a 100-times jump, but all we can do is two-times or three-times," Goergen said in an interview at the conference.

The problem isn't so much pure technology advancement as the time it takes to reach consensus among vendors, he said. This is despite the fact that the networking industry works together better than most other IT sectors, he added.

Others said both elements come into play. The two work hand in hand, according to David Stauffer, chairman of the Physical and Link Layer Working Group at the Optical Interoperability Forum, who spoke at the conference.

Though researchers may develop new, faster technologies, vendors can't reach consensus on them until they're confident that the components can be manufactured for a reasonable price, Stauffer said. A component that can be made in a lab and demonstrated may not be feasible to manufacture in large volumes, he said.

Demand for bandwidth is growing especially fast in virtualized data centers, where high server utilization is driving companies to deploy 10-Gigabit Ethernet links to top-of-rack switches, said Dell'Oro Group analyst Alan Weckel. Aggregating all that data will require 100-Gigabit uplinks from switches, which some enterprises are clamoring for, and Terabit Ethernet data-center backbones, Weckel said. Terabit Ethernet isn't even in development yet, though some large entities, including Facebook, have said they need it.

Weckel doesn't think the industry can stay more than two or three years ahead of the need for speed. Though greater leaps may be technically possible, often they aren't economical, he said.

However, work toward new Ethernet standards is moving steadily forward. The IEEE 802.3 100-Gigabit Backplane and Copper Cable Study Group is on track to get a task force formed to solve the problems it is defining, said John D'Ambrosia, who is chairman of the study group. That task force would define standards for using 100-Gigabit Ethernet in the backplanes that provide connections within a switch. If all goes well, the IEEE will approve the task force in September, D'Ambrosia said.

A group studying the need for a next generation of Ethernet beyond 100-Gigabit is also making progress, according to D'Ambrosia. The IEEE 802.3 Industry Connections Ethernet Bandwidth Assessment Ad Hoc will receive input from the financial industry later this month and from Comcast and other big users of Ethernet later in the year, said D'Ambrosia, who also chairs that group.

The bandwidth assessment group was formed to help shorten the long process of standards development, said D'Ambrosia. He said both consensus-building and raw technological problem-solving combine to slow new advances in Ethernet. During the development of the 802.3ba standard, which defines both 40-Gigabit and 100-Gigabit Ethernet, several months were lost to a debate over which speed the group should be aiming for, he said. The new ad hoc group aims to answer that question ahead of time for whatever future body is formed to set a standard for the next generation of Ethernet.

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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