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10/31/2003
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TechGuide: Every Little Gigabit Helps

Cost trends, more than application needs such as voice over IP, will help drive mainstream and enterprise acceptance of Gigabit Ethernet.

The other factor that must be figured in to backbone switches is the addition of services.

Integrated services now or will include:

--Voice over IP;
--Firewalls, intrusion detection systems and other security features, such as virtual private networking;
--Distributed storage management;
--Wireless overlays, including Wi-Fi and cellular integration;
--Better management.

Demand for such services will drive the market for gigabit Ethernet, even if bandwidth does not. For more on the economics of the move, check out "Ready When You Are" (InformationWeek, October 13, 2003).

The Future
There are already switches pumping 10 Gbit data through the backbone. There aren't many of them--Dell'Oro Group estimates that just 1,000 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports were shipped last year. But they're needed at phone companies and large companies, particularly those with heavy-duty server loads and large storage area networks.

Those switches are primarily being used to suck up Gigabit Ethernet transmissions and pump them through more efficiently. "They're used for aggregation," says Bob Felderman, chief technology officer at Precision I/O Inc., a startup developing hardware and software to help companies better use bandwidth. "Those thousand ports shipped are for switch to switch communications, or even metro area networks."

Network RealityThese systems are expensive, but they're experiencing rapid price drops. Timon Sloane, director of product management at Extreme Networks, says 10-Gbit systems are coming down dramatically in price, despite the low volumes, from $60,000 a port to $25,000 a port currently, and $8,000 a port by year's end. They're also experiencing rapid growth--Cisco's Shalita says the company shipped more 10 Gbit ports in its most recent quarter than it did in the previous 12 months.

By the way, 10 Gigabit Ethernet on the desktop is, if you'll excuse the pun, a pipe dream. For instance, Intel's 10 Gigabit Ethernet card runs only on fiber-optics and the retail price is a stiff $7,000 to $10,000. "You can't really put that on a PC," notes Tom Swinford, general manager of Intel's LAN unit. He says they're primarily being used in scientific applications.

10 Gigabit Ethernet thus represents the beginning of the slowdown in Ethernet speed increases. We may all someday have 10 Gbits of bandwidth at our desktop, but it will be a long while, unless something completely unforeseen comes along to dramatically tax systems. Of course, it isn't hard to think of bandwidth-clogging ideas, such as video phones, the challenge is justifying them from a business standpoint.

Illustration by Doug Ross

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