Copper versions, lower prices make 10G more tempting

A sharp drop in 10G Ethernet pricing, and the emergence of technology that runs 10G over copper, could spur enterprise interest in the technology, users and analysts say.

Pre-standard 10G prices were high enough to scare all but the most deep-pocketed organizations, as debut products three years ago hovered around US$100,000 (AUD$13,243) per port. Today, pricing has fallen below US$7,000 per link - under the $1,000-per-Gigabit threshold that analysts have said would be necessary to attract buyers. And with one copper 10G standard in the books, and another on its way, experts are predicting an imminent rise in 10G adoption.

"I believe the current reduction in 10 Gigabit pricing is being driven by the availability of Gigabit-over-copper on the edge, and the move to more centralized application services," says Len Stans, director of network technology at Sandia National Laboratories, a U.S. Department of Energy lab with a large supercomputing research facility.

Sandia has about 20 10G ports on a mix of Cisco Systems, Extreme Networks, Force10 Networks and Foundry Networks switches. These boxes tie together backbone switches and connect to switches that aggregate clusters of smaller machines, linked via Gigabit Ethernet. Stans expects to boost the lab's 10G port count to 300 by this time next year.

The per-port price for 10G has dropped rapidly since the introduction of pre-standard 10G equipment in 2001. Foundry was the first to ship a pre-standard 10G port on its BigIron switch, at a cost of about US$80,000 for the module and optics. Now Foundry, Cisco, Extreme and Force10 all have products priced between $4,000 and $7,000 for a fiber-based Gigabit Ethernet port.

"The pricing cuts (for 10G gear) are a surprise to me," says Zeus Kerravala, an analyst with The Yankee Group. "The average cost of a 10 Gigabit port has come down much more dramatically than I would have figured a few years ago." Vendors have said that wider availability of 10G optical components from more suppliers, and the emergence of standard 10G form factors such as the XAUI interface and XenPak modular transceivers, have helped drive down the cost of optics and components.

The approval of an IEEE standard for copper-based 10G early this month promises to hasten the price decreases. The IEEE standard, specified as 10GBase-CX4, uses InfiniBand IBX4 twinaxial cable, rather than the more common Category 5 and 6 cabling, which supports Ethernet speeds from 10M to 1000M bit/sec.

Recently, Cisco announced a $600 10G copper port module for its Catalyst 6500 switch. Cisco was the leader in 10G revenue last year, according to Gartner, with $45 million. Cisco was followed by Foundry with $25 million and Force10 with $6 million.

"A majority of the cost that goes into building a (10G) port still has to do with optics," says Steven Shalita, a marketing manager for Cisco's switch products.

Although low in price - Cisco's 10GBase-CX4 port costs one-sixth the price of the vendor's lowest-cost fiber-based port - not everyone thinks the current copper 10G standard is enough to drive new 10G applications.

"We don't have a huge requirement for what (copper 10G) can offer," says Dave Wiltzius, network division leader at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories. "That standard won't really open up the floodgates for our 10G plans. What really does open up the floodgates is the price reductions in general on 10G."

Wiltzius says if it were not for the availability of 10G at less than US$10,000 per port, his lab would have continued to mainly use channelized 1-Gigabit links for its long-distance and data center connections between switches. He adds that the lab has plans this year to "more than double" its 50 10G ports.

One strike against the 10GBase-CX4 standard is its distance limitation of about 50 feet.

An IEEE study group was formed last November to look at 10G over Category 5, 6 and 7 unshielded twisted pair cable, with distances of up to 330 feet (the same as 1000Base-T Gigabit Ethernet). The applications for this technology would include data center connections (larger server links and inter-switch links among backbone switches). They also could include horizontal wiring closet connections, where high densities of Gigabit desktop users might be aggregated via a 10G switch uplink.

"10GBase-CX4 is a step in the right direction, but (it has) limited reach" says Brad Booth, chair of the IEEE 10GBase-T Study Group, in a presentation on the technology in November. Group officials estimate that the standard will be ready sometime in mid-2006.

"10GBase-CX4 will have a tough time getting a foothold," says Andrew Feldman, director of marketing for Force10. "Most people are not interested in using a technology that doesn't stick with unshielded twisted pair as the copper medium of transmission. It is important to note that a similar standard for Gigabit Ethernet over twinax (1000Base-CX4) died an ugly death in the marketplace."

Network equipment chip maker Solarflare Communication his week got a jump on the 10GBase-T effort, announcing a transceiver and chip technology the company says can deliver 10G bit/sec of throughput over Category 5, 6 and 7 cabling up to 330 feet. Solarflare says it will have components available for equipment makers by midyear.

"I don't think 10G copper will cannibalize or replace (10G fiber) in many applications," says Dave Zabrowski, president and CEO of S2IO, one of two vendors shipping 10G server network interface cards (NIC). (Intel is the other.) Zabrowski did not indicate that S2IO would release any copper 10G NICs in the near future, but said he is "very interested" in the technology.

However, the availability of copper probably won't be that much of a factor for most current 10G users.

"Most data centers already have fiber in place for mission-critical server and backbone (switch) links," Zabrowski says, so copper-based 10G won't replace any equipment in those areas.

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