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How to Plan Your Move to Multi-Gigabit Ethernet

Start with a Network Analysis. Then Make the Business Case.

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Gigabit Ethernet has been in the market for more than 15 years, but with rapid advances in Wi-Fi speeds and the rollout of increasingly bandwidth-intensive applications, many enterprises and SMBs are finding it’s finally running out of steam.

Whereas once the only alternative to wired gigabit Ethernet networks was a jump to 10G, which requires new cabling, now there’s another option: 2.5G or 5G, using the Cat 5e/Cat 6 twisted pair cable you already have installed. Thanks to the work of the 45-member NBASE-T Alliance, you can find products based on the IEEE 802.3bz standard for 2.5/5G Ethernet ratified in September 2016.

In this post, we’ll provide guidance to help you plan an upgrade.

It starts with an assessment of the current load on various portions of your network. As explained in a previous post, applications such as video production and editing, CAD/CAM programs, imaging, computational fluid dynamics (CFD) and electromagnetic tools are creating demand for speeds beyond 1G bps. The same goes for large database transfers, multi-core simulations and Enterprise-class backup using Network-Attach Storage (NAS) devices.

To find where your choke points are, survey employees to learn about what they’re experiencing every day. Or better yet, use a network and application performance analyzer to determine for sure what kind of response time they’re getting, and whether it’s acceptable.

Such an analysis also should include the wireless network. As explained in this previous post, Wave 2 802.11ac wireless access points support a total capacity of 6.9G bps and many wireless devices are now capable of connecting at speeds above 1G bps. That means the wired network those APs connect to could be a choke point.

The results of the network analysis will show you where to start the upgrade. The next step, then, is to query vendors to determine which multi-Gigabit products best fit your needs. A simple approach to that job is to start with the NBASE-T Alliance. It was formed by Cisco and network chip-maker Aquantia, among others, to develop specifications and products for multi-Gigabit applications. The alliance website has an extensive list of NBASE-T/IEEE 802.3bz compliant multi-Gigabit products that are already on the market ranging from WLAN WiFi Access Points to Ethernet switches, PC adapter cards, NAS, testers, etc.

Ask if their equipment supports features such as:

  • Scalability beyond 1G data rates over Cat 5e/6 cables with support for full duplex 2.5G/5G data rates
  • Auto-negotiation to add in the new 2.5G/5G data rates while supporting legacy 1G and faster 10G data rates
  • Support for a superset of 802.3bz features, with the addition of “downshift” capability in the event of  degraded or non-compliant cabling installations
  • Support for PoE, PoE+, UPoE and Energy Efficient Ethernet at all data rates
  • Support for network infrastructure security features as MACSec with layer-2 data encryption  

Finally, you’ll need to make the business case for multi-gigabit Ethernet. The results of your network and application assessment should help here, assuming it proves your organization does indeed need higher speeds in at least some areas.

If so, then your options amount to either employing NBASE-T/IEEE802.3bz gear on the same Cat 5e/6 cabling you already have, or installing new Cat6a or better cable to support 10GBASE-T Ethernet. You’ll have to price out the cost of new cable, but chances are it’s at least $100 per drop and could be as high as $500 for a 1oG upgrade of the cabling infrastructure. As for the wireless portion, Cisco puts the cost of new cable at $200 to $800 per AP, as discussed in an earlier post.

It’s clear that new cable can easily cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in a large network. Those kinds of numbers should help you make a sound business case for an upgrade to NBASE-T/IEEE802.3bz.

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