Gigabit Ethernet switches drive more-for-less trend

As Gigabit Ethernet pricing continues to free-fall, the technology is finding its way into corporate networks where 10M bit/sec hubs once might have served small workgroups.

Recent products from vendors such as D-Link Systems Inc., Linksys Group Inc., Netgear Inc. and SMC Networks Inc. continue to push the more-for-less trend in network switches. Two engines drive this trend: increasing demand for faster LAN links; and smaller, more efficient LAN switch components from network silicon makers.

Since 1999, Gigabit Ethernet pricing has dropped from the US$1,100-per-port price range to an industry average price of about $400 per port. This estimate includes copper-based fixed-configuration Layer 2 Gigabit boxes and high-end fiber-based Gigabit ports with advanced features.

The push toward Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop is driven somewhat by new applications, such as streaming media and IP telephony. Demand also comes from specialized or vertical markets with end users who work with large files or use specialized applications that utilize lots of bandwidth.

According to a Network World survey of 500 IT executives, almost two-thirds of the respondents said Gigabit Ethernet is already in their networks, while another 30 percent said it will be in the next two years.

Aperio, a San Diego company that designs equipment for digitizing microscope slides, uses Gigabit desktops to handle unusual bandwidth requirements.

"When we were setting up the network, we realized we'd be moving huge images around, and that this would take a long time with" 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet, says Ole Eichorn, the firm's CTO. He adds that many of the images sent across the network are so large that if they were printed in pieces on a standard printer, "it would be like covering a tennis court with magazine pages."

Gigabit network interface cards and integrated 1000Base-T ports have become essential items for most server vendors. And recently, major PC manufacturers - including Apple Computer Inc., Dell Inc., Gateway Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co. - have started offering point products or whole lines of PCs with integrated Gigabit Ethernet interfaces built into the motherboard.

"It's amazing how prices have dramatically come down," says Matt Queen, systems administrator with Standridge Color, a plastics manufacturing company in Greensboro, Ga.

This price drop let Standridge rebuild its network with switches from Dell. All switches now have multiple Gigabit uplinks to the core, which runs Gigabit over fiber. This bandwidth boost didn't break the company's bank and let it look at new applications for the network, Queen says.

"The reason we looked into (Gigabit( is because we wanted to do (voice-over-IP( apps," Queen says. The Gigabit core supports an IP-enabled PBX running over the LAN and a paging system for the shop floors that runs over the Ethernet network. Bandwidth utilization has yet to be an issue, he adds.

Although smaller players have entered the Gigabit Ethernet market aggressively, this segment is still very much a Cisco world. Cisco Systems Inc. owned 60 percent of the 7.4 million Gigabit ports shipped in 2002. And 3Com and D-Link came in second and third with 7 percent and 6 percent of the market, respectively. While 3Com has made a recent push to appeal to Cisco's customer base of large corporations, D-Link remains focused on smaller shops and the consumer market. Observers say the appeal of D-Link Gigabit products to the masses is a sign of commoditization in the Gigabit LAN switch market.

Part of this move to lower-cost products comes from more efficient design and component fabrication techniques from companies that enterprise customers usually don't deal with directly.

"A number of different things have changed and are still changing" in the Ethernet component realm that lead to lower-cost gear, says Jim Muth, product line manager for Gigabit Ethernet systems at Broadcom Corp. Muth's firm makes many of the components and silicon that go into switch vendors' products. He points to two main factors that drive down cost - size and heat.

Many key components in copper-based Gigabit Ethernet switches are now one-third the size they were when the technology was introduced in 2000, Muth says. This lets more physical ports be packed together tighter, making the overall products less expensive.

"Anytime you can shrink a component," he says, "that will help you out on your cost."

He adds that copper-based Gigabit switches also run much cooler now, which helps keeps pricing down for two reasons. Going from 5 watts of power down to 750 milliwatts - common for today's components - means less-expensive power supplies are necessary. Plus, with less heat, fans can be shrunken or removed - another factor leading to a smaller price tag, Muth says.

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