An Intel Corp.-backed startup, SolarFlare Communications Inc., said Monday that it has developed a working prototype of a chip that will permit 10G-bps communications over standard CAT5e copper wiring.
SolarFlares chip will be used as evidence that 10G-bit over copper can be done, in anticipation of a draft IEEE standard to be developed later this year. Ron Cates, vice president of marketing for Irvine, Calif.-based SolarFlare, said his company hopes to be able to anticipate final specification by announcing a product in the third quarter.
To date, 10G-bit networks have been restricted to fiber optics, a much costlier method of networking components compared with Cat5 copper cable. Ethernet has become the de facto networking connection of the PC world, and extending its capabilities to higher bandwidths will enable a new market for low-cost storage networking and other enterprise products, Cates said.
"Its an achievement that some people said was impossible," Cates said, who added that he expects other manufacturers to follow suit with similar components. SolarFlare, which was founded in 2001, includes backing from Intel Capital, Sequoia Capital and Foundation Capital.
Over time, somewhat more esoteric networking methods have been proposed, such as ATM, but have largely been passed over in favor of Ethernet. According to a 2003 report from market researcher LAN Technologies, the worldwide base of installed Ethernet ports is expected to reach about 850 million this year; more than two-thirds will use either CAT5 or CAT5e cabling to connect them. Although both CAT5 and CAT5e cabling use unshielded twisted pair cabling inside them, CAT5e cables are designed to tighter specifications and are used with Gigabit Ethernet networks.
Two "study groups" have been formed within the IEEE 802.3 Working Group to solve the problem: the first trying to extend 10G-bit networks over the standard cabling length of 100 meters using CAT5 cabling, and a second, dubbed "TwinAX," which is trying to solve the problem using a short-range cable containing a pair of dual coaxial cables, similar to what Infiniband connections use, according to Cates.
Members of the 802.3 "study group" will vote on a first draft of the standard beginning in July, Cates said. After that, the revisions process will continue until 2006, when a final draft could be hammered out.
"Its not a product announcement but a technology feasibility announcement," Cates said of SolarFlares disclosure. "What were trying to do is help the standards body move forward by showing them what is feasible and what is not feasible, technically."