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Handicapping the Gigabit Ethernet vs. SONET race

While Synchronous Optical Networking is generally considered superior to Ethernet in both general robustness and in technological areas related to timing and synchronization, Gig E still comes in first.

It's becoming clearer and clearer that Gigabit Ethernet, and not the meek, shall inherit the Earth.

Why is Gig E making so many waves in the media these days? Ethernet in general has owned the corporate LAN for years, all other contenders such as IBM's Token Ring having fallen by the wayside in the quest for market share. And while Gigabit Ethernet in particular is becoming popular as a LAN solution due to its deployment over Cat 5 copper cabling, that popularity has also come as a surprise to nobody.

No, the big news in Gig E these days revolves around its newfound role as a darling of the metropolitan area network (MAN) market, which has historically been primarily associated with Synchronous Optical Networking (SONET/SDH).

SONET is not without its charms, to be sure. SONET is generally considered superior to Ethernet in both general robustness and in technological areas related to timing and synchronization, which given the essentially time-sensitive data payloads often associated with the MAN market is definitely a selling point.

And for now, raw performance is a feather in SONET's cap -- up to 10 Gigabits/second. Products supporting 10 Gigabit Ethernet are expected to ship sometime this year -- in theory. But anyone paying attention to the network technology industry has long since become familiar with the issue of missed ship dates, serious problems in early implementations and astronomically high prices, which inevitably fall like a Newtonian apple... if you're patient enough to let market gravity tug them down.

Given these factors, it's not likely 10 Gig E will be a major contender in the network arena in the immediate future and SONET will continue to have the performance card to play.

So why isn't the MAN market simply going to stick with SONET? SONET scalability is far from simple; if you want to double or triple the performance of a SONET ring, the challenge involved will be much more complex than for an Ethernet network of comparable initial performance. And SONET is expensive -- at least compared to Ethernet. Initial costs and operating expenses will necessarily vary by vendors and circumstances, but many have found Ethernet to be roughly one-fourth the cost of SONET for a given set of services.

SONET was made to deliver widely varying data types, leaving it superior in that respect to today's Ethernets, which live and breath IP; if you want to blend in switched-circuit voice traffic, SONET is the way to go. But even in voice, SONET's future appears to be in some doubt. As voice-over-IP telephony products evolve, and quality of service (QoS), performance and feature limitations are resolved, the Ethernet/IP combination is going to look prettier and prettier, particularly at lower and lower price points. Already we're seeing the emergence of companies such as Yipes, which focus on Ethernet-over-fiber MAN/WAN services exclusively, offering high-end performance at significantly lower costs than SONET alternatives.

If, as seems to be the case, Gigabit Ethernet is already largely unchallenged as the heir apparent to the LAN, and is quickly achieving escape velocity as a MAN technology, what's in store for its future?

According to Gartner Group at the recent Networking Beyond the Enterprise conference:

  • By 2002, Ethernet-based services will offer up to a 100-times cost improvement over traditional WAN offerings (0.8 probability.) By 2005, more than 30% of high-speed WAN data services will be delivered over Ethernet (0.8 probability.)
  • By 2004, Ethernet services will have migrated from a nascent market to one where all types of service providers will offer active support (0.8 probability.)
  • By 2006, Ethernet access will support a full complement of mainstream network service provider offerings and emerge as the standard access technology (0.6 probability.)

If Gartner has its probability theory right, Bob Metcalfe (widely considered the father of Ethernet) can certainly be proud of his baby as it closes in on its 30th birthday.


searchNetworking Network Infrastructure and Services Expert: Anthony Cicero, director of technology, ITT Industries, NS&S -- Americas, answers users questions.

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