The standards process for 10-Gigabit Ethernet has taken a step forward at the IEEE, but don't expect the market for switches incorporating the technology to ignite anytime soon.
Rather than conquering the metro market, the best prospects for the switches that vendors such as Nortel, Cisco and Force10 are slowly getting out of the door appear to be at enterprises slowly upgrading their Internet infrastructure.
TechnologyThe IEEE's approval of the 10-Gig standard caps three years of effort by the board and the 10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance to coordinate the process. The 10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance is an industry consortium comprised of 80 members but led by established equipment vendors such as Cisco, Nortel, Extreme and Foundry, and chipmakers like Intel, Agilent and the division of IBM acquired by JDS Uniphase.
The high-speed version of Ethernet is largely the same as the version used in LANs, but it has been modified to travel over optical fiber and to include an optical transceiver for transmission over distances of up to 40 kilometers. The protocol has full duplex capabilities, meaning data can be transmitted in both directions at the same time on a signal carrier.
The major work done in the standards body involves creating a WAN physical layer (PHY) interface. The wide area interface sublayer (WIS) matches the rate of OC-192 Sonet and allows service providers to manage the Ethernet network as part of a Sonet network. The WIS contains a Sonet management information base (MIB) that operates at the link layer, but is not a Sonet interface. The 10-Gig Ethernet media access control layer operates in conjunction with the WIS to adapt the Ethernet packets to the Sonet payload. Most 10-Gig Ethernet switches incorporate a Sonet framer. The WIS is an option that can be invoked in the case of WAN deployments and creating links from the metro network to the enterprise network.
There are two major issues with getting products to market: the optical transceivers are still expensive, and there are still rumblings that the few switches available from vendors don't deliver the line rate of 10Gbps. In addition, there are contentions that the metro network is a horse race between Ethernet, resilient packet ring (RPR) and next-generation Sonet, despite assurances that the technologies are complementary from vendors like Cisco and Nortel, which have plays in all three areas.
Now that chip vendors know what the standard is, they will be more likely to commit resources to ramping up volume production of optical transceivers, contends 10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance president Richard Brand, who is also director of network architecture and applications at Nortel. Still, he concedes that the industry is caught in a catch-22 situation for the moment. Equipment vendors need to drive down prices to generate volume, while chipmakers will only dedicate resources when they can sell into a volume market.
Still, chipmakers consider the 10-Gig Ethernet market strategic, much in the way that equipment vendors do. Agere and Agilent in March of last year set up a multiple source agreement for 10-Gig Ethernet module packaging called Xenpak that has subsequently attracted most of the major component makers. Intel, not historically a player in the optics market, earlier this year released a set of transceivers for the enterprise and telecom markets, while JDS Uniphase late last year acquired IBM's optical transceiver business and in May demonstrated a 10Gbps version of the Ethernet transceiver.
The thrust of the efforts is to reassure carriers the protocol can be extended beyond the enterprise, but Brand expects that the first orders will trickle in from enterprises looking to upgrade their corporate backbone and provide 10-Gig links to network resources, such as storage.
Incumbent vendors are wary about introducing a new box at a point when conditions are hardly salubrious for carriers. Cisco introduced a 10-Gig Ethernet module for its Catalysts switch last month. Nortel has spread the technology across its product lines. The Passport 8600, based on the Excelar switch from its Bay Networks acquisition, has an upgrade option, and Nortel has developed a 10-Gig Ethernet blade for its Optera 5200 multiservice switch. In the works is a module for its Sonet Optera 3500 platform. According to Brand, Nortel expects to compete initially on the basis of the breadth of its products for the 10-Gig Ethernet market. Foundry was the first vendor to get a 10-Gig Ethernet switch onto the market, and probably has the most deployments under its belt, although most are on a modest scale.
In contrast to the startups in the space, Brand contends that RPR is complementary since it functions as a way to interconnect networks and create rings. 10-Gig Ethernet can run off RPR rings to create point-to-point connections to nodes or enterprise hubs. RPR would use the same physical layer, but logically the link reaching the end user would be 10-Gigabit Ethernet, Brand notes.
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