Ethernet Got Complicated

Recently, I attended the Ethernet Technology Summit in San Jose to get an update on the state of our favorite networking technology.  This year it really hit me:  Ethernet has become unbelievably complex. 

Ethernet won the battle of the local area network (LAN) wars of the 1990s for the reason it was relatively simple and very flexible.  Subsequently, industry found it was also extensible and scalable in speed and topology.  The early coax based 10 Mb/s format morphed into a CAT5 twisted pair 100 Mb/s system.  Switches replaced hubs to make the network faster and expandable.  Then along came the 1 Gb/s version which is the mainstream today although there are millions of plain old 10/100 LANs still in use.  A 10Gb/s UTP version is also now available.

And let’s not forget all the optical versions out there.  It started with the 10 and 100 Mb/s versions and we now have 1 Gb/s and 10 Gb/s versions.  But that’s not all. The standards for 40Gb/s and 100 Gb/s are approved (IEEE 802.3ba) and there are already some optical links at 40/100 Gb/s in operation.  That has helped Ethernet to move from a LAN to MAN applications and even some WAN operations.  Yet optical is expensive and it is rarely used in the mainstream LANs and data centers.

Here are some highlights from the workshops and sessions.

·         10GBase-T copper version of Ethernet is available now in the form of network interface cards (NICs).  Its primary use is connecting servers and switches in the data centers.  While it has been around a while, adoption has not been speedy.  Researchers say that as soon as 10GbE gets integrated on the motherboard (LAN on motherboard or LOM) of servers and PCs it will go mainstream.  Most runs are short (
·         Continuous  Internet expansion and the speed requirements of social media, streaming video, massive remote storage, and emerging cloud applications are driving the adoption of  higher speed versions.

·         Carrier Ethernet, a software standard for Ethernet developed by the Metro Ethernet Foundation (MEF) is being widely adopted by the cellular carriers for cell site backhaul.  Carrier Ethernet makes the connection more secure and provides for monitoring, management, and control.

·         Fibre Channel (FC) over Ethernet (FCoE) provides for carrying the FC protocol used for storage area networks (SANs).  FCoE has not yet been widely adopted but as data centers attempt to consolidate all networking functions on Ethernet its use will grow.

·         The hot topic at the Summit was virtualization.  Virtualization is taking place at the data centers in order to better use existing servers and lower total cost of ownership (TOC) and reduce power consumption.  One talk discussed a distributed overlay of virtual Ethernet switches.

·         Another favorite topic was software-defined networking (SDN).  This new concept attempts to make clusters of servers look like one big server that can be partitioned into virtual logical rather than physical servers to improve efficiency.

·         A related popular topic was OpenFlow, a new protocol to create a software-defined network.  It is not yet widely used but is being studied by the switch and router manufacturers as one way to improve the management and utilization of the data center.

·         The 40/100 GbE standards are slowly being adopted as hardware becomes available and costs come down.  The most popular version of 100 GbE uses four parallel 28 Gb/s channels on separate fibers or on dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM).·         Terabit Ethernet is also in the works.  Study groups are looking at ways to boost rates using ten 100 Gb/s in parallel to start.  An earlier 400 Gb/s version is on the roadmap as well.  Some say that large Ethernet users like Amazon, Facebook, and Google would adopt the 400 Gb/s version now if available.

Anyway, like I said, it really got complicated.  I thought I knew Ethernet, but it is a real challenge to stay on top of it.  I wonder if Bob Metcalfe keeps up to date with his creation.

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