Ethernet: Are there worlds left to conquer?

Ethernet may be ubiquitous but it’s not done yet as storage, automotive, data center and service provider applications are all in the future

LAS VEGAS -- Apparently Ethernet isn’t all THAT ubiquitous. That is judging by the number of new applications, speed changes and future options for the networking standard that were discussed at the Interop symposium here.

“We are now beyond the ‘let’s just go faster’ development of Ethernet and are now looking at developing Ethernet for specific applications,” said David Chalupsky, Ethernet Alliance BASE-T subcommittee chair and principal engineer at Intel.

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That’s not to say Ethernet won’t continue to get faster – it is. There is currently work to develop 50Gbps, 200Gbps and 400Gbps Ethernet in the next three years. But perhaps more telling, the Ethernet community is also looking to standardize on slower speeds 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps and 25Gbps.

There are a number of new applications awaiting these lower speeds.

“There is a diversity of customer needs between 1Gb/sec and 10G bit/sec Ethernet and everyone wants to get the most out of their installed systems, the speeds in 802.3bz address that,” said Chalupsky.

Those include networked storage where there is expected to be a dramatic increase in storage speed thanks to some forthcoming new technology as well as the speed of solid-state drive (SSD) products today, experts say.

“The network will become a bottleneck with the increased speed of storage in the future,” said Rob Davis, vice president of storage technology at Mellanox during an Ethernet presentation at the show. He noted the increased use of products based on Remote Direct Memory Access (RDMA) which moves memory across the network without CPU involvement will also bolster the need for Ethernet speed and bandwidth.

The other big driver for diversifying low speed Ethernet (beyond the current standard of 1Gb/sec) is a demand for products that support faster data rates on Cat5e and Cat6 twisted-pair copper cables particularly to link up with the bandwidth growth driven by wireless 802.11ac Wave 2 Access Points. Category 5e cables connecting switches to wireless access points are limited to just 1-Gigabit speeds.

“Customers are looking for options here as the wireless component of their network grows – and the 2.5Gb/s would be a economical option,” said Jeff Reed, Cisco vice president of enterprise infrastructure and solutions.

At Interop, the NBase-T Alliance showed off an assortment of 2.5 and 5GBase-T products – from switches to NICs – that it said will address new applications for NBase-T products, including the ability to aggregate data at 2.5Gb/sec and 5Gb/sec Ethernet data across 802.11ac Wave2 access points and improved speed links to network-attached storage devices.

Cisco earlier this year said 52% of mobile data traffic will be offloaded from cellular networks to the fixed network through WiFi in 2018, increasing the amount of wireless data transmitted over WLAN in enterprise branch and campus networks. As the Wave 2 of 802.11ac WiFi is rolled out, traffic aggregated on APs will surpass multiple gigabits per second and require both the access point and the Ethernet switch ports to scale beyond 1G.

Other applications that Ethernet technology is looking to for the future include:

  • PoE: The Ethernet Alliance say that standard work is being done to improve Power over Ethernet which defines a way for delivering power to devices over Category 5 cable. The current power level using two pairs of wires is 25.5 Watts though the PoE+ standard. In the future 4-pair PoE is being standardized to deliver 70W of power over 4 twisted pairs, the Alliance stated. Such move would let customers add more users and larger networking equipment.
  • Automotive Ethernet: “Ethernet is being deployed in automobiles and will be the defacto standard for automobile networks by 2020,” the Ethernet Alliance stated. Automotive Ethernet typically delivers power and data over single pair wires at distances of up to 15 meters at 100Mbit/sec or 1Gbit/sec.

“Weight is a big issue for cars and the electrical harness in a car today is one of the heaviest components – Ethernet will address that issue and help make the car more economical,” Chalupsky said. Indeed there is an emerging market for faster Ethernet in cars. A study by Frost & Sullivan from 2014 predicted that premium vehicles will have more than 100 Ethernet nodes by 2020 with mass-market cars will having up to 60. “The bandwidth requirement for in-vehicle electronic applications, such as camera-assisted parking with advanced driver assistance systems, lane departure warning systems, collision avoidance systems, and traffic light recognition is higher, in the range over 100Mbps. The number of nodes to be connected therefore is also higher. Most importantly, proven IP-based Ethernet technology enables OEMs to use a single-network platform by significantly reducing the connectivity cost and cabling weight. It is scalable and flexible enough to be used in multiple vehicle segments,” stated Frost & Sullivan.

  • Hyperscale data centers: “There are only a handful of customers that deploy servers and switches by the 100,000s and Ethernet will adapt to address their requirements,” Chalupsky said.
  • The Ethernet Alliance recently wrote in Network World: While the debates on the different technologies to enable 400GbE were underway, another dynamic was emerging. The development of 25Gbps signaling to support 100GbE, including operation over backplanes, copper twin-axial cables and multi-mode fiber, led to the recognition that 25GbE-based servers, using 100GbE for networking, could be used in the same fashion as 10GbE and 40GbE and drive the next generation of the hyper-scale data centers. The standard to make this leap will be completed shortly.
  • With the impending completion of this standard, and the rapid pace by which hyper scale data centers are looking to grow, it was recognized that, once again, a higher speed Ethernet was needed for the next generation of servers beyond 25GbE. And with the new 50Gbps signaling technologies being developed to support 400GbE, the choice is clear – 50GbE.
  • Service providers: It is here too that the speeds of 200Gb/sec and 400Gb/sec will be wanted. Such speeds will be needed to support ever-growing video services and other bandwidth hungry applications. Standards for this Ethernet speed could come by the end of the year.
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