Deciding the future of Ethernet

* Component designers discuss the next frontiers for the technology

Scaling Ethernet to new heights - as much as 100Gbps - as well developing 10G Ethernet for copper wiring and internal system backplanes are among the chief issues at this week's DesignCon conference.

Customers and producers of Ethernet say the need for scaling the technology to 100Gbps, and the need for a 100 Gigabit Ethernet standard, is approaching faster than expected. The use of Ethernet inside computers and switch chassis, and 10G Ethernet over copper, could result in performance gains and cost savings for customers of corporate LAN gear in the near future, industry insiders say.

"It's time to start a higher-speed study group in the IEEE," said Mike Bennett, senior network engineer at Lawrence Berkley National Lab (LBNL), who spoke at a 100G Ethernet panel at the event in Santa Clara, which drew mostly members of the component and silicon design community.

Bennett said the bandwidth needs among his peers at other U.S. Department of Energy labs, as well as carrier networks, will soon call for a 100Gbps standard. Current use of 10G Ethernet, and the need to aggregate 10G links, is driving this requirement.

There is some support in the design community for Ethernet to follow the progression of SONET technology's transmission speed, as 10G Ethernet development stayed close to SONET OC-192 specifications. OC-768, at around 40Gbps, is the rarified highest-level speed of SONET available today. But Bennett thinks bandwidth needs of high-end users and carriers will exceed 40Gbps by the time such a standards effort gets into motion; moving to 100G is better planning for the future.

"We've always been an Ethernet shop," Bennett said. "And our whole upgrade plan is based on scaling by factors of 10, so it would just be a natural progression to go to 100G Ethernet."

LBNL uses several 10G links in its data centers to aggregate switch connections and links to supercomputer clusters, used for computer-intensive energy research.

"We're getting to the point where 10G Ethernet is taking off, and at some point you're going to need to aggregate those links," Bennett said.

Ethernet also is catching on as a backplane technology for a variety of gear, including blade servers chassis, and core LAN and metropolitan-area network Ethernet switches and routers, as well as broadband wireless and DSL access equipment. The use of Ethernet in a device backplane involves the transmission of traffic in standard-sized Ethernet frames on a device backplane, which interconnects various modules and interface components of a machine. (In a blade server, the Ethernet backplane links blades with a shared interface; in switches, it’s the path traffic takes traveling among ports on different interface cards, or to a central packet processing module.) In 2004, the 802.3ap Task Force was formed in the IEEE to help standardize this implementation.

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