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Terabit Ethernet in sight

By Sreedhar Kajeepeta, special to Network World
March 30, 2009 12:03 AM ET
This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

Network World - Looking down the LAN road, the Terabit Ethernet milestone is very much in sight. While 3.2Tbps and 6.4Tbps speeds were demonstrated in test environments by Siemens/WorldCom and NEC/Nortel respectively starting in 2001, the first set of viable solutions are just now taking shape.

The Feb. 16th edition of Optics Express included a paper detailing the efforts of researchers from Australia, Denmark and China who joined forces to demonstrate the feasibility of a Terabit Ethernet over regular fiber-optic cables. Terabit speeds bring us to the x1Million improvement in speed from where Ethernet started in 1976.

By focusing on materials research related to fiber-optic circuits, Australia's Center for Ultra-high bandwidth Device for Optical Systems (CUDOS) achieved a breakthrough with the introduction of an exotic compound called "Chalcogenide" that could make commercializing Terabit circuits practical. Although CUDOS Research Director Ben Eggleton says it will take years to reach production readiness, this does coincide with Bob Metcalfe's prediction that we may start seeing the first commercial use of Terabit Ethernets by 2015.

Today, of course, the industry is focused on shorter-term goals. The IEEE 802.3ba is working on 40GbE and 100GbE standards, and NTT is the first company to announce a reliable 100GbE circuit. But many network vendors are focusing on 10GbE, in particular, development of cost-effective 10GbE interfaces for copper so buyers don't have to upgrade to fiber-optics.

From their debut in 2001, 10GbE switches have indeed become more affordable, dropping from about $40,000 to $4,000. Industry analysts expect 10GbE adoption to jump 30% this year.

Most campus LANs are getting by with speeds of 100Mbps, but there are examples of 1GbE and 10GbE switches at the server and backbone layers, and also the use of fiber-optics between servers. And most laptops ship with an Ethernet card capable of handling 1Gbps or even 10Gbps. What's more, wireless LAN speeds are slowly catching up with wired LANs.

What will we possibly do with all the new bandwidth? That sounds like a legitimate question, but Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen had to deal with a similar question when they dreamed of putting a computer on every corporate desk and in every home.

If immediate needs were technology's guiding lights, we would all still be in the Stone Ages. Sometimes necessity is indeed the mother of invention, but inventions can create newer necessities and propel needs to newer heights.

Metcalfe's dream for Ethernet was driven by the belief that if you build it, they will come. And that includes the needs themselves. Metcalfe said last year he wants to "help shape a road map" to Terabit Ethernet, because "we're going to get there anyway." As we move further into the paradigm of cloud computing, where computing power and storage will gradually move to the center of the network, it becomes necessary that the network be fast enough to meet the needs of this new, highly distributed model. The aspiration of "the network being the computer" can only become real if the network is as fast as the computer, if not faster.

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