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NBASE-T Ethernet gives LANs a needed performance boost

NBASE-T Ethernet provides for LAN transmission speeds of up to 5 Gbps over most existing copper cable, redefining networks.

In our world full of technology, change is constant -- except when it isn't.

While CPU speeds, disk and RAM capacity, and wireless speeds have gotten ever-greater in the past few years, the one essential of networking hasn't changed at all: Gigabit Ethernet is still Gigabit Ethernet.

True, you can find 10 GbE and higher for connecting specialized servers to switches, but the essential wired desktop connection, 1 GbE, has not changed since its introduction before the turn of the century -- until now. Until NBASE-T Ethernet.

What is NBASE-T?

NBASE-T is the marketing term for the IEEE 802.3z standard. We'll stick with NBASE-T. In a nutshell, this effort provides for LAN transmission speeds of up to 5 Gbps over most existing copper cable. Work began in March 2015, and 802.3bz was approved as a standard just 18 months later, on Sept. 23, 2016. That is relatively rapid work as standards committees go.

Why do you need NBASE-T Ethernet?

Two of the most important reasons:

Leveraging existing cable infrastructure. Gigabit Ethernet -- GbE for short -- was the culmination of efforts that started with the earliest specification, 10-BASE-T. That standard, also called shared-hub Ethernet, was engineered to maximize the transmission speed of LANs anchored by copper-based cabling. During the late 1990s, the fate of copper cabling was very much in doubt, as network designers evaluated whether or not asynchronous transfer mode (ATM) -- which ran almost exclusively on fiber optic cable -- would replace Ethernet for higher-bandwidth networking. It didn't happen.

The demise of ATM also brought the end of fiber-to-the-desktop. It also sparked the deployment of higher-quality CAT5e and CAT6 copper cabling, which, over time, became ubiquitous. The big breakthrough with CAT5e was the ability to run Fast Ethernet -- 100 Mbps -- and, ultimately, 1 Gbps connections. But it all stopped there.

NBASE-T provides a huge increase in performance without having to change out the cable between the desktop and the wiring closet -- the most expensive part of the networking equation.

Until the advent of NBASE-T, the top networking speed was 1 Gbps -- period. NBASE-T boosts that performance by essentially downshifting the signaling rates used in 10 GbE -- which copper cable can't handle -- to either one-quarter or half the rate. The result: Organizations can use their existing copper cabling to support both 2.5 GbE and 5 GbE.

In other words, NBASE-T Ethernet provides a huge increase in performance without having to change out the cable between the desktop and the wiring closet -- the most expensive part of the networking equation.

High-bandwidth Power over Ethernet connections. NBASE-T Ethernet delivers Power over Ethernet (PoE). This capability has become increasingly important. The wired Gigabit Ethernet link from the switch to the access point is becoming a bottleneck, as wireless LAN speeds increase. WLAN IEEE 802.11ac Wave 2 multiuser multiple-input, multiple-output technology is advertising throughput that exceeds Gigabit Ethernet.

Other devices that are typically powered via the Ethernet connection can benefit from the bandwidth boost of NBASE-T. Certainly, IP video cameras can consume significant amounts of bandwidth. Some companies are deploying "mini" versions of network switches and routers to distant rooms. Being able to power these remotely via PoE removes a potential source of failure -- e.g., someone in a distant room removing the power plug of the networking device -- and having a faster wired link improves performance for the devices connected to the miniswitch or router.

PoE support also allows organizations to increase their reliance on outdoor devices. Many users work either in a campus environment, or an office or warehouse environment, where outdoors is a regular part of their work environments. Users would expect -- or often require -- Wi-Fi connectivity as they roam from building to building or conduct their main job outside. It is enough of a challenge to mount devices like WLAN access points or IP video cameras outdoors; to run separate power is often just not feasible.

In part two of this series, we'll examine the vendors developing and marketing NBASE-T Ethernet products.

Next Steps

NBASE-T allows existing cables to be repurposed

Networks can futureproof with NBASE-T

New Ethernet switches change market

This was last published in April 2017

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How are you working to adopt NBASE-T in your organization?