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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.

Tech GuideMoore's Law is seen as the performance driver of the IT industry, but the rise in desktop performance has actually been bypassed by the sonic boom of bandwidth. So while IT managers already scratch their heads over multigigahertz desktops and notebooks, they can at least pretend that someday soon they might start using speech interfaces or some other chip-clogging application. The idea of an app that will force them to upgrade their entire enterprise to Gigabit Ethernet boggles the mind.

That doesn't mean that a shift to gigabit networks won't happen. Indeed, it's already coming, particularly on LAN backbones.


PCs can't take full advantage of 1-Gbit speeds, Estrin says.
"I don't even think of 1 gig as a future technology anymore," says Judy Estrin, an Ethernet pioneer and serial entrepreneur who now runs Packet Design, parent company of several networking startups. Estrin notes that network technologies evolve in a series of stages, some of which can happen in parallel, but all of which must be in place before companies can take full advantage of what they have. High-speed optical devices need to be developed, along with semiconductors to support them and interface with systems, and then someone needs to figure out how to extend the technology from expensive fiber-optics to standard copper wiring. Ethernet networks need broad connectivity throughout an enterprise, from the desktop (which usually starts with network interface cards and moves to networking chips built onto a PC motherboard) to routers and high-end switches in the company's backbone. For Gigabit Ethernet, PCs will optimally have a PCI Express bus interface, once PCs with that bus begin appearing in 2004.

Gigabit Ethernet, then, has just one remaining roadblock between it and the mainstream: the market. Fast Ethernet came of age when the Internet and telephony bubbles were expanding. Gigabit Ethernet as a standard was released in 1999 and products started appearing just in time for the Internet bubble to burst. It should come as little surprise that the networking market has remained relatively flat from a revenue perspective, as businesses hunker down and avoid all but necessary upgrades. That's been easy to do, since few companies can directly point to a need for gigabit bandwidth. Medical facilities that shunt radiological images or movie studios with their glitzy graphics come to mind, but those are niche high-end environments. Voice over IP may change some of that, but most enterprises are installing the technology only when they add new facilities, if then.

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Even at Cisco Systems, an aggressive booster of voice over IP and other bandwidth-hungry services, officials are resigned to a piecemeal upgrade cycle.

"There is no single killer app for Gigabit Ethernet," says Steven Shalita, Cisco's senior manager of worldwide product marketing for LAN systems. "I don't think I could make the suggestion [to an enterprise] that you've got to scrap what you have and go buy Gigabit Ethernet." Shalita does believe that software trends such as automatic updates and backup, as well as the increasing push for more services, will eat up ever more bandwidth, prompting the need for companies to go to Gigabit Ethernet and ultimately 10 Gigabit Ethernet. He cites a Salomon Smith Barney study projecting that the amount of data generated by applications will increase between a 30% and 40% compounded annual growth rate, driven by everything from E-mail to data warehousing.

Regardless of whether it's needed, Gigabit Ethernet is spreading, particularly for backbone uses. Meta Group estimates that Gigabit Ethernet comprises about 10% of corporate network environments, a number that will steadily--then perhaps sharply--rise this decade.

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