Ethernet Reaches into the MAN - and Beyond

FRAMINGHAM (05/01/2000) - If I offered you twice the bandwidth of your current metropolitan-area network (MAN) at half the cost, would you be interested? That proposition is attracting customers to a new breed of MAN service providers that are building fast, inexpensive networks using off-the-shelf Gigabit Ethernet switches, optical technologies such as wave division multiplexing and installed fiber-optic cabling.

Telseon in Palo Alto is the newest service provider to jump into the metro market, offering customers a fully managed Ethernet MAN service. Earlier this year, another Bay area company called Yipes launched a similar service. Both companies plan to introduce their offerings in major metro markets throughout the U.S. and are also eyeing European and Asian markets.

The Ethernet metro market is hot, and that fact has not been lost on networking vendors. Extreme Networks, which has been selling equipment to Yipes and others building Ethernet-based MANs, recently announced a switch aimed at the metro market as well as the formation of a business unit focused on service providers. Similarly, Cisco Systems Inc. several weeks ago quietly created a metropolitan services business unit. Nortel Networks Corp. in March launched its optical Ethernet product line and announced deals with service providers in Scandinavia and Canada.

Why the growing interest in Ethernet-based MANs? They're fast, cheap and easy to deploy and manage. They address the pent-up demand for more bandwidth in the metro area and offer a compelling alternative to traditional MAN services.

Historically, local network speeds have outstripped MAN and WAN speeds. Over the past few years, however, service providers have been building out their backbones, dramatically increasing the bandwidth in WAN cores. This has led to a bandwidth crunch in the metro area.

Service providers such as Telseon and Yipes are addressing that bandwidth problem by allowing customers to purchase bandwidth in 1M-bit increments up to a full gigabit. In addition to providing flexible amounts of bandwidth, these Ethernet MAN services are cheaper than T-1 and DS-3 lines in terms of the cost per megabit of data moved. More important for some customers, the provisioning cycle for these new Ethernet-based services typically takes half the time of their traditional counterparts. (Actual installation times vary based on the availability of fiber to a given customer site. Getting fiber to your doorstep is the hardest part of these service installations.)And in a dramatic break from traditional telco-style services, Telseon and Yipes can increase the data rate on an existing link in less than 24 hours.

Telseon goes so far as to give customers control over bandwidth provisioning, supplying a Web-based interface that allows customers to turn up the bandwidth on a link in a matter of minutes. This contrasts with the three to five weeks one IT manager noted it took his service provider to increase the committed information rate on his frame relay links.

For many enterprises, the availability of Ethernet-based metro services addresses another problem - the shortage of IT workers. In the Bay area, for example, dot-com fever has decimated many IT staffs. Using Ethernet-based MAN services eliminates the need for SONET, ATM and other traditional MAN/WAN gear.

This results in tremendous savings, not only in equipment costs, but also in operations staff.

These new offerings are dramatically changing the cost model for IP data services. What's less clear is how quickly and how well they will handle voice traffic. Extreme Networks is trying to tackle voice and video as well as data in its new MAN switch line, the Alpine 3800. These switches include a feature called IP time-division multiplexing that's designed to provide circuit emulation so that voice and video traffic get guaranteed latencies. If the technology proves successful, other vendors undoubtedly will begin offering similar capabilities.

We can also expect Ethernet's reach to get longer. Vendors such as Extreme and Foundry Networks already support Gigabit Ethernet running over single-mode fiber at up to 150 kilometers. Optical switching and related advancements will push those distances even further. Keep your eyes open for Ethernet WANs.

Petrosky is an independent technology analyst based in San Mateo, California.

She can be reached at mary@mpetrosky.com.

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