Ethernet: Class of 02

State university upgrades core network switches with 10 Gigabit Ethernet blades.

At Arkansas State University, the days of whining about slow network connections are almost a thing of the past. The university, in Jonesboro, is putting itself near the top of the networking class by upgrading half its core network switches to 10 Gigabit Ethernet—the latest, fastest standard. In recent months, it has upgraded four Cisco Systems Inc. Catalyst 6500 Series switches with single-port 10 Gigabit Ethernet blades, allowing it to connect its two largest core network locations at blistering speeds.

The upgrade supports Arkansas States push for faster speeds to end users. The university has set Gigabit Ethernet as the standard all the way to the desktop and was on schedule to have 4,000 Gigabit Ethernet ports available on campus, including in dorms, this month, said Greg Williamson, the universitys associate director of information and technology services. "Our commitment is, if you have a Gigabit card in your computer, we will provide Gigabit connectivity," Williamson said.

Such a promise explains why Arkansas State, unlike most large organizations and enterprises, is speeding ahead with 10 Gigabit Ethernet. After all, the latest Ethernet standard, ratified in June, remains elusive for the majority of organizations that are waiting for the prices of 10 Gigabit Ethernet gear to fall and for their bandwidth needs to require the next speed leap.

Arkansas State offers a glimpse of 10 Gigabit Ethernets future. Analysts expect enterprises to first deploy 10 Gigabit Ethernet in their network backbones as a way of aggregating traffic that will increasingly move toward Gigabit speeds to the desktop. Such deployments will likely not become mainstream for three years, although early-adopter enterprises are likely to embrace them starting next year, said David Passmore, an analyst at Burton Group, in Sterling, Va. "The big issue right now is that there are very few enterprises that need 10 [Gigabit Ethernet]," Passmore said. "Its an issue of demand as opposed to supply."

Major networking vendors such as Cisco, Nortel Networks Ltd., Extreme Networks Inc. and Foundry Networks Inc. have already launched support for 10 Gigabit Ethernet in their enterprise switches, and others are following suit. But enterprises for the most part have not found new applications that require an immediate order-of-magnitude jump in bandwidth. The academic world has been an exception, Passmore said.

Arkansas State found that many faculty members were requiring major bandwidth increases to support applications such as those for remotely controlling electron microscopes over the network and for other high-end research tasks. With so much bandwidth in place, the university is exploring new applications, such as piping its sporting events by streaming video to local television stations, Williamson said. "Every time you put something in, the technology changes so fast," Williamson said. "It doesnt make sense to me to put in technology that has already matured and is being replaced with faster technology."

High-speed connectivity can also help differentiate the school from its peers and help attract top students concerned about colleges IT resources, Williamson said.

And while 10 Gigabit Ethernet may be expensive—the average port on shorter-reach fiber costs $15,000 to $20,000—Arkansas State said it expects it to be less expensive in the long run. Without 10 Gigabit Ethernet in its core, the university would need to trunk multiple Gigabit Ethernet connections together to support its goal of Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop. Such trunking adds labor and overhead costs that can be avoided with 10 Gigabit Ethernet, Williamson said.

Arkansas State hasnt been immune to the effects of 10 Gigabit Ethernets high cost. Williamson said he had originally hoped to upgrade all eight Cisco core switches this year but scaled back the project because of budget constraints. Williamson is optimistic that more money will become available by next summer or the summer after to upgrade the remaining switches. "Cutting back on 10 [Gigabit Ethernet] blades saved us a lot of money," Williamson said. "As the newness wears off, there will be price reductions, so it will be easier to see us purchasing more of them."

The most likely next step for 10 Gigabit Ethernet, after the core switches are upgraded, will be to push it into server farms at the university that could take advantage of the extra bandwidth, Williamson said. He has no definite plans for that so far.

The move into 10 Gigabit Ethernet is part of a larger university update of its campuswide network. Arkansas State is also rewiring campus buildings with Category 6 cable.

With 10 Gigabit Ethernet in place in the campus core, Williamson is noticing a sea change in how bandwidth is evolving. The network itself is playing a bigger role, hopefully leaving the bottlenecks between end-user hardware and network capacity behind. Already, the four 10 Gigabit Ethernet ports are running at less than 1 percent of capacity, leaving plenty of room to grow, Williamson said. "This is the first time Ive ... had the network infrastructure outpace the PC infrastructure," he said. "Its always been the other way around for me."