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Standard snag for Gigabit Ethernet

Delays in the final stages of the standards process for gigabit-speed Ethernet could hold up its formal approval at least until early summer.

Delays in the final stages of the standards process for gigabit-speed Ethernet could hold up formal approval of the technology at least until early summer.

As recently as last November, proponents of the standard were looking at a March ratification of the much-anticipated guidelines for networking devices based on Gigabit Ethernet.

Now the earliest target date for final approval by the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers is sometime in June. In addition, if several issues cannot be ironed out by then, ratification could stretch to September, since the organization meets only every three months.

Ethernet is the dominant technology that organizations use to connect their PCs and server machines to a network. Currently, the technology runs at speeds of 10 and 100 mbps.

Gigabit Ethernet offers a tenfold boost to 1,000 mbps, allowing the technology to be used for connections between multiple sites in a campus environment, for example, or in a building with multiple floors. Various market researchers predict the market for gigabit-speed devices will be worth at least $1.5 billion by the year 2000.

The current holdup relates to multimode fiber-based implementations of the technology. Current uses basically send beams of light across a pipe at inconsistent speeds, causing various beams to arrive at their destination at different times, according to executives involved in the effort.

The present focus of the standard's proponents is on solving this problem and creating a test to determine whether each portion of the signal is in sync. The situation hits the SX version of the technology the hardest, and that is the implementation that is expected to be the most popular due to its lower costs, executives said.

"The positive news is everything else is resolved--there's just this one issue," said Brian MacLeod, director of marketing at Packet Engines and an IEEE committee member.

The delay could affect wider acceptance of gigabit-speed products, according to some, since many conservative network administrators may be holding off until all of the standards-related issues are set in stone. Analysts, however, said they don't believe the state of the process will affect the currently glutted market of gigabit devices.

"When you get a bunch of vendors together that see money, they get highly motivated," said Mary Petrosky, an analyst with the Burton Group.

Some initial entrants into the market already have cut a wide swath in lining up users of the emerging technology. Start-up Foundry Networks said in January that its gear already has a role in the networks of over 120 customers worldwide. The company has been shipping Gigabit Ethernet products since last May.

Others noted that once common specifications for chips called Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) were in place last spring for gigabit gear, the standard was essentially solid.

"My opinion was, and still is, that there is nothing that could change radically enough within the remaining items left to deal with that would create any major problems for vendors that had gone ahead and developed ASICs for Gigabit Ethernet devices," said John Armstrong, an analyst with market researcher Dataquest.

To nip uncertainties among customers, gigabit gear provider 3Com will offer a guarantee that its products, which started shipping in November, will be interoperable with the final standard. Other companies have floated similar assurances.

"From a customer perspective, it's business as usual," said Bob Gohn, product line director for Gigabit Ethernet at 3Com. "Our belief is that they will have to do nothing."