Ethernet Leaps to Hyperspeed

BOSTON (05/15/2000) - Brent Lowensohn isn't sure exactly how health care giant Kaiser Permanente Health Plan Inc. will use 10 Gigabit Ethernet when it becomes available, but he's enthusiastic about it nonetheless.

Lowensohn, director of advanced technologies at Kaiser Permanente Information Technology in Pasadena, California, puts it this way: "The most exciting part of this is the real potential that something we never thought of is going to come into our lives. Whenever an enabling technology like this comes along, you expect a paradigm shift in the user community. You've made something that was irrational or uneconomic to think about quite rational and economically viable."

Two decades ago, Ethernet pumped bits around LANs at a rate of 10 million/sec., which was pretty fast at the time. So-called Fast Ethernet, which runs at 100M-bps, emerged in 1995, and in 1998, users got Ethernet at 1G-bps. Last year, Gigabit Ethernet started to be used in wiring closets and data centers at large companies.

Now, following the dictum that you can never be too rich or too thin, or have too much bandwidth, Ethernet is on the brink of its third quantum jump, to 10G-bps. At that speed, an Ethernet link could transmit the information in two four-drawer filing cabinets filled with pages printed on both sides in just 1 sec.

An Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) task force is now drafting specifications for 10 Gigabit Ethernet. The group is expected to issue its first-draft standard in September, with the final standard planned for early 2002. Vendors say they'll start shipping products based on the draft standard next year.

At 10G-bps, Ethernet will be able to take over some of the heavy-duty networking applications now dominated by technologies such as Asynchronous Transfer Mode and Synchronous Optical Network (Sonet).

Indeed, the IEEE and a new industry group called the 10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance are drafting specifications so that companies will be able to seamlessly integrate their LANs with the metropolitan-area networks and the WANs of network service providers. That kind of network integration will lower communications costs and simplify network administration.

Du Pont Co. in Wilmington, Delaware, offers a costly videoconferencing technology to a few geographically dispersed senior employees. But David Pensak, principal consultant for advanced computing technology at the company, says teleconferencing could be widely deployed at a relatively low cost by upgrading the corporate backbone to 10 Gigabit Ethernet.

Real-time Savings

Pensak says the new technology could also help control "distant instrumentation." Du Pont scientists currently must travel to Chicago to observe experiments on an ultrahigh-intensity X-ray laser there. Ten Gigabit Ethernet could pump experimental data - some 300GB per week - in real time and cost-effectively direct it to the company's labs in Wilmington, he says.

Companies building server farms for high-volume applications such as e-commerce will use 10 Gigabit Ethernet to aggregate multiple 1G-bps. Ethernet segments to move huge volumes of data to and from the enterprise network core, says Bruce Tolley, a marketing manager at San Jose-based Cisco Systems Inc.

And Tolley says many large organizations such as financial institutions will lease "dark fiber" - idle, in-ground optical fiber - to build their own low-cost, long-distance networks, using 10 Gigabit Ethernet. "It could be between, say, a trading floor in Manhattan and back-end servers in New Jersey," he says. "The network will look like a LAN but often [extend] 40 or 50 kilometers."

Each generation of Ethernet has offered 10 times more bandwidth than the previous one, at three to five times the cost. Ten Gigabit Ethernet will offer a similar cost advantage, predicts Cam Cullen, a business development manager at 3Com Corp. in Boston. And it will be five to 10 times cheaper than Sonet, he says. An OC-48 Sonet port, which runs at 2.4G-bps, costs about $30,000, while a 1G-bps Ethernet port costs $1,200, he says.

No one is thinking seriously yet about 100G-bps Ethernet, but there are ways today to scale beyond 10G-bps. One, called "link aggregation," combines multiple 1G bit - and, in the future, 10G bit - physical fibers into one large conduit. The second scaling method uses dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM) to combine multiple colors of light, each carrying its own information, into one optical fiber. In the laboratory, DWDM has combined 100 colors at 10G bit each to produce a 1 terabit pipe.

"We are a national organization, and we travel a lot more than we wish we did," Lowensohn says. "High bandwidth plus high processing power will facilitate things we couldn't afford before, such as long-distance collaboration and remote sensing for medical diagnosis and care."

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