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Gigabit to the desktop: A decision you can’t escape

Oct 14, 20023 mins

Back in the good old days, when IT capital spending dollars were free flowing, most network executives seized the opportunity to migrate their LANs to high-performance Layer 2/Layer 3 LAN switches. Thanks to that, they’ve got a glut of bandwidth on campus and likely a fairly happy bunch of users. So who says that you have to decide about Gigabit to the desktop now? Dell and Intel, that’s who (with Hewlett-Packard and IBM thinking the same way).

Both companies are pushing Gigabit Ethernet for desktop machines in a big way. Intel, already one of the top Ethernet network interface card providers, now offers a LAN on Motherboard (LOM) implementation of Gigabit Ethernet.

Intel is displacing 3Com as Dell’s LOM provider, and Dell is moving full-speed ahead to make every corporate desktop it sells a 10/100/1,000M bit/sec Gigabit Ethernet-capable computer.

The following is a direct and complete quote from Dell’s Gigabit Ethernet frequently-asked-questions document answering the question, “Will ALL Dell systems switch over to Gigabit Ethernet? Answer: “Starting in mid-CY02, all NEW Dell OptiPlex and Dell Precision (not Dimension) Pentium 4-based systems will have Gigabit LOM. (Value systems will have Intel 10/100 LOM) In the future, we expect that all new systems will have Gigabit LOM as a standard feature.”

With more and more of your desktops Gigabit-enabled, there will be increasing pressure from users and management to use that bandwidth. Your LAN switch vendors would love to see you replace all your Fast Ethernet client ports with Gigabit over copper ports.

And, as I’ve written over the years, going to gig is not just the same no-brainer as was the Ethernet to Fast Ethernet migration. Research conducted at The Tolly Group as part of a recent in-depth ITclarity report on Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop has confirmed the importance of the myriad technology issues.

For starters, network architects need to powwow with their PC brethren to reach an agreement on both PCI-bus specifications and CPU power. Both have an effect on the performance levels you’ll be able to achieve.

Previously, network specialists have not had to delve into issues such as bus width, clock speed and next-generation standards such as PCI-X – but Gigabit Ethernet migration revolves around them.

With LOM being standard for the Dells, you wonder if the network manager even will know about the desktop transition to Gigabit until the users start asking for Gigabit switch ports. This could be an interesting turf battle.

I’ve written previously that copper cable infrastructure is a big issue – apparently not to Dell. In this same useful FAQ, Dell states unequivocally: “Gigabit networking will work with most existing Category 5 Ethernet wiring, provided that all of the conductors are connected.” Not a mention of Cat 5e or Cat 6 anywhere.

Let’s pause a moment while the cabling vendors reading this column seek some medical help. I’m sure they gasped when they read Dell’s statement. Technically, a certified Cat 5e is the lowest level recommended for Gigabit Ethernet – with Cat 6 being preferred.

Given the massive installed base of less-than-Cat5e, this is a big issue – and one that we evaluated. To our surprise, some experiments run on subpar cabling would appear to support Dell’s assertion.

So not that your to-do list isn’t long enough already, but you’d better add “research Gigabit to the desktop” to it.

Tolly is president of The Tolly Group, a strategic consulting and independent testing company in Manasquan, N.J. He can be reached at