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Taking Ethernet the distance

A group of international researchers transmits data over a 10-Gigabit Ethernet link farther than anyone else to date.

Researchers are pushing the envelope when it comes to transmitting big chunks of data over Ethernet across ultralong distances.

Earlier this week, a group of engineers based in Canada, Japan, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the United States announced that they had completed the world's longest native 10-Gigabit Ethernet circuit.

Using a 10-Gigabit Ethernet standard adopted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the group transmitted data from the Japanese Data Reservoir project in Tokyo to CERN, a research facility in Geneva that focuses on high-energy particle physics. The length of the data path spanned 11,495 miles and 17 time zones.

The 10-Gigabit Ethernet link connected computers in Tokyo and Geneva as if they were a part of the same local area network. Researchers used optical and Ethernet switching equipment from Cisco Systems, Foundry Networks and Nortel Networks.

Developed 30 years ago, Ethernet is the predominant technology used to connect computers on corporate networks. Over the past few years, carriers have extended the use of the technology to connect offices within cities. Now researchers are extending the technology once again, as they stretch Ethernet across continents.

Ethernet's appeal comes down to three main things: ease of use, high capacity and low cost. It's easier than some other technologies because it allows different networks in separate locations to be tied together as if they were part of one network. It also allows capacity to be incrementally notched up from 1gbps (gigabit per second) to 10gbps, making more efficient use of bandwidth.

And finally, using Ethernet equipment is typically more cost effective than traditional telecommunications equipment. But it remains to be seen whether the savings found within companies' corporate networks and carriers' metropolitan networks will be translated to Ethernet deployments over longer distances.

Regardless, engineers and researchers are jumping on the Ethernet bandwagon.

Participants in the National LambdaRail project, who are building their own fiber backbone across the United States to link universities, also have begun building a native Ethernet network over their infrastructure. So far, the group has completed half the network, transmitting data between universities in San Diego and Chicago, and spanning a total distance of roughly 6,000 miles. When the Ethernet network is complete, it will crisscross the United States, extending across more than 10,000 miles.

"It's great to see network engineers pushing the boundaries on this technology," said Tom West, CEO of the National LambdaRail project. "It's good for all of us. The link between CERN and the University of Japan is an important one, particularly for high-energy researchers."