The Big Promise Of Gig-E

While much of the technology and telecommunications sectors are weathering prolonged slumps, Gig-E is hot and threatening to streamroll other technologies.

Gigabit Ethernet. The very name rolls sweetly off the tongue, implying lightning speeds in a protocol as simple and familiar as the plug-and-play ports in the back of your laptop and printer. Its the hottest play in the metro area because it can carry heavy traffic from office to branch office and onto the public network - and do so at a tenth of the cost of the Synchronous Optical Network infrastructure traditionally used in metro rings. So its no wonder that while much of the technology and telecommunications sectors are weathering prolonged slumps, Gig-E is hot and threatening to streamroll other technologies.

"We never approach a customer these days that knows IP at all that doesnt ask for Gigabit Ethernet," said Martin Capurro, who heads Qwest Communications Internationals Dedicated Internet Access division.

Why? Because Gig-E promises to move Ethernet technology beyond the walls of the office to campus environments and across cities to deliver a cornucopia of services to the enterprise:

  • Bandwidth-on-demand, which lets I-managers throttle up the bandwidth for a few hours per week, and then ease it back down, so theyre only using - and paying for - what they need.
  • Quality of service, the ability to sort and prioritize traffic with Multilabel Packet Switching, so service providers can guarantee performance and charge extra for premium service.
  • Carrier-class reliability, resiliency and latency will be added, when a standard is hammered out delineating how to carry Ethernet frames over a resilient ring topography.

Despite the big promises, though, the availability of Gig-E and its even faster sibling - 10 Gigabit Ethernet - remains limited. And the broader question looms: Will it prove as robust and resilient across and beyond the metro area as it did in the University of New Hampshire labs, where vendors tested their products interoperability?

After all, that which is simple in the local office can grow exponentially complex when Ethernet tries to cross the metro area, its mesh-style architecture sprouting lines like a Rube Goldberg spaghetti machine.

"There are some gotchas that some Gigabit Ethernet people havent come clean about," said analyst Mark Main, of market research firm Ovum. For example, he said, an Ethernet mesh architecture gets more complicated with more connection points: Connecting three devices to each other requires three lines; four require six lines; five require 10 lines; six require 15 lines; and 20 require 190 lines. "When they scale up, it can get very difficult to manage. The jury is still out on whether they are as easy as they claim. You can get unforeseen things that dont show up in the lab," Main said.

At its core, Gigabit Ethernet is a set of rules dictating how traffic is to be carried in Ethernet frames at speeds of 1 gigabit per second. And now some companies have also begun rolling out 10 Gig-E, letting local packet-based networks scale from 10 megabits per second to 10 Gbps. Combined, Gig-E and 10 Gig-E offer the possibility of moving the familiar protocol past the metro and onto the long-haul network.

This week, 18 vendors are scheduled to demonstrate interoperability of 10-Gbps products at the NetWorld+Interop show in Atlanta in competition with Foundry Networks, which unveiled its 10-Gbps switch at the last N+I show in Las Vegas in May.

The competition for margins in one of the few growing network markets is fierce. During the second quarter, revenue from Layer 3 modular gigabit switchers rose 4 percent, and sales of ultra-high-end routers - which are capable of 10 Gbps and are rapidly becoming compatible with 10 Gig-E - rose 16 percent, to $286 million.

The overall metro network market for Gig-E, the Synchronous Optical Network and wavelength services is expected to grow from $6.3 billion last year to $17.2 billion in 2003.

Probe Research expects Intelligent Optical Networking, in which Gig-E plays a role, to grow seven times faster than SONET through 2005, when ION, at $38.2 billion in sales, will surpass SONET.

But that doesnt mean SONET is going away. The smart money says SONET - an expensive optical standard with the flexibility to transport many digital signals of different capacities from different vendors - will be very much alive for a long time.