Gigabit to desktop? Not so fast

Vendors might be moving full-bore to drive Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop, but users have other plans - at least for now.

Hewlett-Packard Co. this week will debut two fixed-port Gigabit Ethernet switches aimed at desktop users. Foundry Networks Inc. also this week will unveil a Gigabit workgroup box. Cisco Systems Inc. recently announced new copper-based Gigabit switch products, and Dell Computer Corp. has promised to ship its business PCs with integrated 10/100/1000Base-T ports.

The decision to upgrade to Gigabit seems simple, right?

Not so, according to industry observers, who say there are few applications to utilize the high-speed network gear, and technical hurdles such as PC throughput preclude widespread implementation. "The biggest obstacle I see to Gigabit on the desktop is that there's no killer app for it," says Lawrence Orans, a senior analyst with Gartner. "There's no need for a mainstream end user of a business PC to have Gigabit Ethernet on his desktop. For the daily computing tasks most enterprise end users take on - e-mail, Web browsing and some client/server applications - 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet is just fine."

While applications such as voice and video have been touted as killer applications for desktop Gigabit, this is a misconception, Orans says. An uncompressed voice call over IP takes up only 64K bit/sec of bandwidth. A quality video stream is not much higher, averaging from 200K to 400K bit/sec. "That's a drop in the bucket when you're talking about a 100-megabit connection," he says.

Users seem to agree.

"If all you're doing is checking e-mail, surfing the Web and using word processing programs, there's no need for Gigabit Ethernet on the desktop" says John Savage, chief systems engineer at Christopher Newport University in Newport News, Va. "[Gigabit Ethernet] is useful when we have to move large amounts of data on and off a server."

Savage has deployed around two dozen workstations with copper-based Gigabit Ethernet connections using 3Com PC adapter cards and switches. The Gigabit desktops are used mostly by his IT staff for tasks such as database file maintenance and application development. But he does not foresee a widespread deployment of Gigabit copper ports in the near future to areas such as faculty and staff offices, or student computer labs.

Despite lukewarm demand from users and skepticism from analysts, vendors seem undeterred. In HP's case, the company will announce the ProCurve 2724, a 24-port 10/100/1000M bit/sec switch with four mini-Gigabit interface card (GBIC) slots for fiber-optic uplinks. HP also is releasing its eight-port ProCurve 2708 with eight copper Gigabit ports for smaller workgroups.

"We are starting to see Gigabit Ethernet become more affordable, and with that it will become easier to distribute corporate applications," says Darla Sommerville, general manager for HP's ProCurve Networking business. "The idea is to get as much power to the edge of the network as possible."

Foundry will release a new Gigabit Ethernet workgroup box this week with its EdgeIron 24G, which has 24 10/100/1000M copper ports and four mini-GBIC uplinks.

"As desktop processing power goes up, workstations and PCs can now take advantage of Gigabit desktop connections," says Joe Tomasello, product marketing manager for Foundry. "Having ports that can autosense [10-megabit], Fast and Gigabit Ethernet connection speeds also allows customers to ease into a Gigabit desktop deployment."

Last month, Cisco released a four-slot version of its Catalyst 6500 switch, along with a 48-port 1000Base-T module aimed at high-density wiring closets.

"These announcements of Gigabit desktop switches are pre-empting the current demand," says Joshua Johnson, a research analyst with Synergy Research Group Inc. "Vendors want to be there when customers are ready to do Gigabit to the desktop. They want to have products available and create brand awareness."

And while PC makers such as Dell, Apple and HP are building Gigabit Ethernet LAN-on-motherboard (LOM) transceivers as standard in their desktop machines, observers say that limitations in PCI bus technology prevents desktops from utilizing a full Gigabit pipe.

The vendors acknowledge this. Dell PCs, outfitted with 10/100/1000M LOMs, can provide "a maximum send speed of about 500 megabits per second and a receive speed of about 800 megabits per second. This speed limitation is due to the 32-bit PCI slot bandwidth," according to Dell's Web site. "There are no plans to add 64-bit PCI slots on desktop computers so the desktop peak send speed will remain at about 500 megabits per second."

For now, Gigabit desktop connections are limited to niche markets that have unusual end-user bandwidth demands, such as the movie special-effects industry. Weta Digital, a New Zealand company responsible for the digital special-effects in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, uses dozens of Linux-based and Apple Macintosh workstations outfitted with Gigabit Ethernet connections, as well as copper-based Gigabit Ethernet switches from Foundry.

"The first time I heard about Gigabit Ethernet I thought, how do I get it to the desktop?" says Jon Labre, CTO at Weta Digital Ltd. He says it is not uncommon for artists to download and upload multigigabyte image files dozens of times throughout the day. "The amount of material we have to move over the network every day is pretty extraordinary."

Similarly, Pixar Animation Studios Inc., makers of "Toy Story" and "Monsters, Inc.," uses around 400 Linux-based IBM Corp. IntelliStation workstations with Gigabit Ethernet connections for its digital animation artists. Cisco copper Gigabit switches are used to link the PCs to the network.

Speaking at a conference earlier this year, Darwyn Peachey, Pixar's vice president of technology, said the high speed at which his shop's workstations can move data is integral to getting the company's films out on time.

Whether you need Gigabit Ethernet now or not, it might be hard to resist such low prices, according to recent market data.

The average price for a fixed-configuration Gigabit Ethernet port has dropped by around 30 percent over the last two years, according to IDC. Many vendors such as Dell now offer Gigabit switch ports as low as US$100. Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards are available in the $100 range from vendors such as 3Com Corp., Asante Technologies Inc. and Intel Corp.

"We're expecting that Gigabit Ethernet will be the standard for all Ethernet on the desktop in two years," Synergy Research Group's Johnson says. While the upgrade cycle to Gigabit on the desktop and 10 Gigabit in the core has not started in earnest yet, many businesses are starting small with Gigabit-capable PCs. "For a few bucks more, why not future-proof your network now?"

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