10-Gigabit Ethernet comes alive

Price cuts are helping the two-year-old technology pick up steam in business networks.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read
The market for 10-gigabit-per-second Ethernet switching got off to a slow start, but now that corporate customers are looking for more speed on their networks, the technology seems to be hitting its stride.


What's new:
Price cuts are helping the two-year-old 10-Gigabit Ethernet technology get picked up for business networks.

Bottom line:
In the long run, the technology's impact could be even more profound, as it offers a one-size-fits-all technology for IT applications from supercomputing to networked storage.

More stories on this topic

Few applications currently require the full bandwidth provided by 10-Gigabit Ethernet. But demand is picking up amid sharp price cuts fuelled by new designs and higher-density products. In addition, a new standard to run 10-Gigabit Ethernet over copper cable could help reduce costs and spur adoption later this year.

"It's really remarkable how quickly the prices have fallen," said Zeus Kerravala, an analyst at The Yankee Group. "And the falling prices have really helped spur adoption."

The arrival of 10-Gigabit Ethernet, also known as 10-GigE, highlights the growing business demand for bandwidth. In systems, it promises to leapfrog current technology in much the same way that 1-Gigabit Ethernet replaced the older Fast Ethernet. But 10-GigE's impact could be even more profound in the long run, as it offers a one-size-fits-all technology for IT applications from supercomputing to networked storage.

In addition, 10-GigE is front and center in the red-hot debate over computer clustering. It has emerged as a leading contender alongside InfiniBand for the high-speed links that connect groups of computers into what's effectively a single machine. (A cluster can match the performance of supercomputers for a fraction of the cost, according to advocates.)

The technology is also making headway in storage systems, where it's a potential replacement for Fibre Channel switches. While 10-GigE isn't perfect for every network application, engineers are attracted by the idea of using one technology to perform various tasks, which can reduce training costs.

For now, 10-GigE switches are typically used in the guts of a network to aggregate lower-speed data streams. For example, they allow throughputs of up to 1 gigabit per second to PCs at the edge of the network. The delivery of a DVD-quality, full-length Hollywood movie at 1gbps could take as few as 30 seconds, depending on network conditions, compared with several hours over a typical Internet broadband connection.

At the end of 2002, the year that the 10-GigE standard was ratified, equipment makers sold only about $42 million in gear, according to The Yankee Group. By the end of last year, the market grew to roughly $90 million.

Price drops
Gear volumes are growing at an even faster clip than revenue, as prices of equipment keep dropping drastically. During the first quarter of 2003, the average price for a 10-GigE port--including the necessary optical-pluggable interface--was about $39,000 per port. By the end of the fourth quarter, it was roughly $11,000 per port.

The Yankee Group's Kerravala said he expects prices to continue falling. By the end of this year, he predicts an average price of about $5,000 or $6,000 per port, including the optical-fiber components.

As prices have declined, vendors have sold more gear. Two?thirds of the 7,300 ports with 10-GigE interfaces shipped in 2003 moved in the last quarter of the year, according to Kerravala. He expects that momentum to continue through 2004, with more than 25,000 ports likely to ship during the year. Units shipped could reach 50,000 ports by 2005 and 80,000 ports by 2006, he said.

While a throughput of 1gpbs to the desktop is still in its early days, many companies are installing network interface cards for 10/100/1000-megabits-per-second Ethernet on their PCs and servers, because the price points are so low. As these companies start utilizing all that bandwidth, they'll need 10-GigE switches in the wiring closet to aggregate the traffic.

Kerravala said it could be a long time before most enterprises need that kind of capacity on desktops. Still, there are certain industries, such as special effects for entertainment, that do require the high capacity.

The place where 10-GigE has taken hold--and where it will grow in the next year--is in corporate data centers, where companies are using Ethernet switches to cluster several high-speed servers. Ten-Gigabit Ethernet uplinks are used to aggregate this traffic, which comes in at 1gbps. The 10-GigE interfaces are also used to connect switches together.

Equipment makers are optimistic about the trends, and most are expecting sales to kick up even more this year.

"I think this is a big year for 10gbps Ethernet," said Andrew Feldman, a vice president of marketing at Force10 Networks, a start-up that specializes in 10-GigE switching.

On Monday, Foundry Networks became the latest vendor to slash prices on its gear. The company introduced a new set of fixed-configuration switches called the FastIron Edge X Series. Traditionally, fixed-configuration products are less expensive overall than chassis-based products, which translates into lower per-port pricing.

The 10-GigE packages in the FastIron series are priced at about $6,500 per port--$3,500 for the interface itself and roughly $3,000 for the optical-fiber components. Extreme Networks, which announced a fixed-configuration product in February, lists its 10-GigE package at about $7,000 per port. Next in line is Cisco Systems, which charges about $8,000 per port on a four-port line card that fits into its Catalyst 6500 chassis switch.

The fixed-configuration products from Foundry and Extreme, which both support 48 copper-based ports for 1-Gigabit Ethernet and two fiber-based Ethernet uplink ports, will likely be used in two main applications. They can be used in the wiring closet to aggregate 1gbps traffic coming from desktops, and they could be used to aggregate 1gpbs traffic from high-speed server clusters in smaller data centers.

Priced on spec
Another factor that could also help drive down prices is the adoption of a new 10-GigE specification called 10GBase-CX4, which allows 10-GigE data to be transmitted over copper cable. This specification, ratified by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in February, enables Ethernet to run over CX4, or four twin-axial copper cable pairs, which is the same cabling used in 10gbps InfiniBand and Fibre Channel.

Copper interfaces are typically more than three times cheaper to produce than optical interfaces, which significantly reduces the overall cost of the finished product, said Bob Grow, the chairman of the IEEE 802.3 working group, which oversees all Ethernet standards development, and a principal architect at Intel.

But there are drawbacks to the new 10GBase-CX4 standard that may limit its impact. For one, it supports data transmission only at distances of up to 15 meters. By comparison, long-reach optical interfaces that run over single-mode fiber can transmit 10-GigE data at distances of up to 10 kilometers.

The second problem with the standard is that it only runs over four twin axial cables. Most enterprise networks use twisted-pair cables. The use of devices that support the 10GBase-CX4 standard would require new cabling.

Still, Grow argued that in certain data center applications, products that use the new technology could be more cost-effective than those based on the fiber standard.

"Even when you deploy new cable, the overall system can cost significantly less than a fiber solution," he said. "It's still a big win over 10gbps optics. But if you need to go the distance, you still have the fiber standard."

Companies such as Cisco Systems, Nortel Networks, 3Com and Hewlett-Packard have supported work on the 10GBase-CX4 standard. Others, such as Foundry and Force10, criticize it as being too limited in scope.

"We have no intention of supporting this standard," said Force10's Feldman. "The distance limitations make it suitable for only obscure applications, and it requires a completely different cabling technology that users don't even want to bother deploying."

Executives from Foundry and Extreme said their companies are still evaluating whether they will support the standard.

Grow said the IEEE 802.3 standards group is also working on a 10GBase-T standard, which would run over the conventional twisted-pair cables. However, the standard is still far from complete, he said.

"There's at least another couple of years before the 10GBase-T standard is finalized, which leaves a significant market window for companies serving this market," Grow said.