The Ethernet ecosystem today is driven by applications, not speed alone

Diverse applications in new and traditional industry verticals expand the Ethernet family

For many years, Ethernet evolution was characterized by the “need for speed” as networks and data centers sought higher and higher throughput. But over time, Ethernet has found its way into applications unforeseen by the developers of the original specification, resulting in a broad and varied Ethernet ecosystem. Today the desire to bring the advantages of Ethernet into new applications necessitates a new approach where the needs of the application are considered first and foremost in defining new Ethernet incarnations.

In this new paradigm, the Ethernet roadmap combines new and existing data rates with other attributes to meet various applications’ requirements. Considerations can include distance, environmental factors, acquisition vs. operational cost, longevity vs. fast time to market, ease of use and flexibility, physical infrastructure reuse and even the size and weight of the cabling. In use cases ranging from industrial processes to security to connected cars, Ethernet is increasingly enabling your lifestyle, safety and productivity.

New Ethernet applications

Two new Ethernet specifications illustrate the application-driven approach for the automotive environment, which requires lightweight cabling and robustness in the face of harsh environmental conditions. The IEEE 802.3bw-2015 100BASE-T1 and IEEE 802.3bp-2016 1000BASE-T1 standards provide 100 Mb/s and 1000 Mb/s Ethernet over a single twisted pair copper cable in the “connected car” and mark the entry of Ethernet into vehicular applications to connect the growing number of intelligent devices found there. 

As the number of connected devices in a vehicle design increases, the more valuable it becomes to provide the automotive industry with an in-vehicle, homogenous network architecture, and Ethernet serves that purpose very well. Enthusiasm appears to be high in this area, as industry discussion is already addressing the topic of “what’s next?” for automotive Ethernet.

Don’t be surprised, but the answer may be to go both faster and slower. The most cost and power sensitive devices, without a lot of data to move, may benefit from a single-pair 10 Mb/s specification. On the other hand, connecting sensors and compute resources for autonomous, self-driving vehicles will cause the bandwidth needs to surge well past 1 Gb/s, and Ethernet may be put to work once again to fill this need. Extending this idea even further, the IEEE 802.3 10 Mb/s Single Twisted Pair Ethernet Study Group is focused on bringing Ethernet protocol with lower costs and longer reaches to industrial automation, building automation and automotive applications.

Although we primarily consider Ethernet to be a data network protocol, consider Ethernet’s utility in moving electric power along the same copper cable as the network data, referred to as Power over Ethernet (PoE). PoE has long been used as a means to power wireless access points, security cameras and IP telephones. Now, new PoE specifications are in the works to provide higher power and more efficient PoE on 4-pair cabling, as well as providing PoE over the single pair cabling used by 100/1000BASE-T1.

Currently, 4-Pair PoE is being standardized by the IEEE P802.3bt task force to deliver power over all 4 twisted pairs, versus the two pairs in current PoE and PoE+ technology. On one hand, this higher power PoE capability will enable higher bandwidth applications, such as higher speed wireless access points. On the flip side, this capability can also be used where little data transmission is needed, such as intelligent lighting systems.

To complement 100BASE-T1 and 1000BASE-T1 networks, IEEE P802.3bu is specifying power delivery over the same single pair cable used for data for applications in internal automotive networks. The goal here is reducing the weight and cost of wiring harnesses – one of the heaviest items in an automotive bill of materials.

New applications in traditional markets

As Ethernet has progressed into new application areas, the existing infrastructure needs of enterprise campus applications have also driven a choice of speed. Serving this need, IEEE Std 802.3bz-2016 defines 2.5 Gb/s and 5 Gb/s MAC operating speeds, and 2.5GBASE-T and 5GBASE-T PHYs operating over category 5e, category 6, or better cabling. The technology is already in products where it allows users to realize greater data bandwidth from the 70+ billion meters of installed cabling while also supporting PoE for our beloved wireless access points.

What’s next in this whirlwind of new Ethernet applications and corresponding standards?

This most versatile and adaptable protocol continues to evolve. Don’t worry – the need for speed is still there, and development is underway to specify Ethernet links at 50/100/200/400Gbps, from a few inches to tens of kilometers in reach. This is where the network adrenaline junkies thrive, putting to work the latest in electrical and optical signaling technologies in that robust and cost effective form that we call Ethernet. Undoubtedly, the diverse, even currently unimagined networking needs of the Internet of Things (IoT) will drive new Ethernet applications as well.

A standard that began life over 30 years ago to connect computers to printers at 10 Mb/s continues to evolve to serve myriad new applications, with no end in sight.

About the author: Chalupsky is a Principal Engineer in Intel’s Data Center Group focusing on Ethernet products, IP, and standards development. With Intel since 1988, Dave has held a variety of hardware development and engineering management roles, which began with single board industrial computer design. An active contributor to the advancement of the Ethernet ecosystem, he is a Director of the Ethernet Alliance and the NBASE-T Alliance, and chairs the Ethernet Alliance BASE-T subcommittee.  He sits on the advisory board for the University of New Hampshire InterOperability Lab (UNH-IOL), and previously chaired two BASE-T-related standards development projects in IEEE 802.3. 

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