Gigabit Ethernet over copper wire delayed

LAN switches that will carry Gigabit Ethernet traffic via copper wiring are being held up by delays in finishing the chips for the new high-speed technology.

The chips, which are key to making Gigabit Ethernet work in enterprises, were first scheduled to ship in 1998 but samples only became available from chip developer Broadcom last week. And sources said that the sample chips now arriving at vendors' doorsteps are causing headaches.

Although flaws are common in first-generation sample chips, observers said, the problems come on top of earlier delays that may be holding up a big price drop in Gigabit Ethernet.

Gigabit Ethernet is the next step for enterprises that have migrated in recent years from 10Gbps to 100Gbps Ethernet. Many are migrating to the higher speed now so they can give users better performance, but today the migration requires fibre-optic cabling. Category 5 copper wiring is less expensive and easier to set up than fibre-optic cable, and it forms the backbones of many enterprises.

A standard for carrying Gigabit Ethernet over copper wire is ready for approval at the next meeting of the IEEE, observers said. Broadcom earlier this month presented at NetWorld+Interop (N+I) its chip for the new interface, and rival Level One is said to be close behind.

Some analysts said that once the physical-interface chips are out in volume, Gigabit Ethernet will go the way of Fast Ethernet.

"I think you're going to see very rapid price erosion," said Sam Alunni, an analyst at Sterling Research, in MassachusettsMike McConnell, an analyst at Infonetics Research, estimated that the price of Gigabit Ethernet ports could drop from a low of about $1200 today to $600 by the end of 2000.

One network manager said being able to use copper wiring will make it easier to bring high-speed operations to the data centre.

"I'd love to use my existing infrastructure for [Gigabit Ethernet] inside the computer room," said Ed Carpenter, a consultant at Presbyterian Health Services, in New Mexico.

Vendors at N+I unveiled products and plans for the interfaces, which most vendors said will ship as soon as chips ship in volume.

Hewlett-Packard demonstrated a working switch with interfaces using the Broadcom chip, and Alteon demonstrated a copper-based Gigabit Ethernet server adapter.

Cisco showed a module for its Catalyst 4000 wiring-closet switch that has 16 ports, with two fibre-based uplinks. It will ship in the second half of this year, officials said.

3Com will introduce by year's end a 16-port stackable switch with a fixed form factor, as well as server network interface cards. Next year, the stackable switch will be converted into a module for the company's CoreBuilder 9000 chassis, the officials said.

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