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Cisco tries to milk Cat5e and Cat6 cabling for more bandwidth

To meet Wi-Fi backhaul demands, Cisco's NBASE-T Alliance will specify 2.5 and 5 GbE switches that can run on existing Cat5e and Cat6 copper cabling.

Cisco and several partners announced an alliance aimed at developing 2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) technology to enable faster data rates on existing Category 5e and Category 6 (Cat5e and Cat6) cabling.

Emerging Wi-Fi standards -- including 802.11ac Wave 2 -- will introduce wireless speeds that will exceed the 1 GbE network access layer that most enterprises have. To take full advantage of 802.11ac throughput, enterprises would need to upgrade to 10 GbE at the access layer, which would require most of them to upgrade cabling -- an expensive and time-consuming undertaking. Cisco's new consortium -- the NBASE-T Alliance -- will develop 2.5 and 5 GbE switches that can deliver faster data rates on existing 1 GbE cabling.

"As we get much faster [wireless] radios, we are going to need a much bigger backhaul link," said Chris Spain, vice president of product management at Cisco. "This alliance is about solving this problem for our customers so they don't have to do a very expensive cable plant upgrade to get higher data rates."

More bandwidth from Cat5e and Cat6 copper

Just as data center infrastructure has seen the emergence of in-between data rates -- like 25 and 50 GbE -- the same speed revolution is now happening on the access layer between 1 GbE and 10 GbE technology.

While 802.11ac Wave 1 typically doesn't exceed 1 Gbps, 802.11ac Wave 2 will be able to reach data rates of 6.9 Gbps. Many existing enterprise cable plants built for 1 GbE switches can't provide the throughput promised by faster wireless standards.

"The customer's choice is to either live with that lower data rates, run multiple cables to the access point, or leverage the technology we are developing to enable that existing cable plant to run faster," said Spain.

Cisco's new industry alliance, with partners including Aquantia, Freescale and Xilinx, will develop a technology standard and digital signal processing algorithms that will squeeze more bandwidth out of commonly deployed Cat5e and Cat6 twisted-pair copper cables to enable "intermediate" data rates -- 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE per second, Spain said.

Although enterprises won't need to deploy new cabling for 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE, they will need new switches. Enterprises will need to decide whether to upgrade switches and move to 2.5 GbE or 5 GbE, or make the move to the currently ratified 10 GbE standard, said Rohit Mehra, vice president of network infrastructure research at IDC, based in Framingham, Mass. 

"The concern is that a business case is being made for staying away [from upgrading] to 10 Gb. We need to separate the need to connect access points to these switches from the need to support end-user devices. I think that's where the debate will continue in terms of business justification for an enterprise to move to 2.5 and 5 Gb, instead of moving to 10," he said.

But the jump from 1 to 10 GbE is too much of a leap for many enterprises from a pricing point of view, Forrester's Kindness said. "[Enterprises] will need faster speeds than 1 Gb in the future, but 10 GbE would be a waste right now," said Andre Kindness, senior analyst for Forrester Research, based in Cambridge, Mass. "Enterprises are really sweating out their campus infrastructure a lot longer."

The NBASE-T Alliance: What needs to happen next

Cisco and its partners will need switch vendors on board to be successful, IDC's Mehra said. "The overall goal and technical merit is certainly valid, and the alliance wants to push these standards into the IEEE process to get them ratified, which is commendable. The last thing we want is proprietary standard that only a couple vendors support," he said.

The NBASE-T Alliance will hold a call for interest meeting this month, and is pending approval from the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers [IEEE], according to Aquantia, a semiconductor company and founding member of the NBASE-T Alliance.

"You will see a whole wave of companies joining hands and joining the alliance to promote this new technology, and you will see the alliance working with the IEEE to standardize the technology," said Kamal Dalmia, vice president of sales for Aquantia.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Gina Narcisi, news writer, and follow @GeeNarcisi on Twitter.

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