Tread Lightly into 40G/100G Ethernet

Arthur Cole

The new 40G/100G Ethernet is now an official standard, but does that mean enterprises, even large ones with a clear need to consolidate existing 10 GbE networks, should rush right into the technology?

Perhaps not, at least until the current crop of products, most of which were designed pre-ratification, can demonstrate both compliance with the final standard and at least a modicum of interoperability with other systems.

Ratification of IEEE 802.3ba did not follow the usual path in which standards are locked down months or even years before finalization. As task force chair John D'Ambrosia pointed out to IDC last month, the standard was still being reworked up until March, making it hard to verify whether any products available now are truly compliant. And that should be a prime consideration for anyone looking to consolidate enterprise backbones on either 40G or 100G connectivity.

That's not stopping the wave of new 40G/100G networking gear, however. Companies such as Hitachi and Juniper are rolling out new high-bandwidth core and edge systems for both enterprise and carrier applications, joining Cisco and others who have been trialing various devices for much of the past year. The standard line is that even if these products jumped the gun a bit, the format was still far enough along for them to claim compliance in the core switch and routing functions.

When it comes to compatibility and interoperability, however, the real test begins this fall. The Ethernet Alliance has scheduled an interoperability test event on Sept. 13 at Ixia's iSimCity lab in Santa Clara, Calif. No word yet on who is scheduled to attend. Open registration is set to expire Friday.

All of this is happening against a backdrop of increasing interest in high-bandwidth environments among enterprise users. As virtualization and cloud computing place increasing pressure on network links to deliver not only raw data, but applications, operating environments and high-bandwidth video, the market for 40G/100G Ethernet is expected to be huge. Infonetics Research reports that spending on 40G ports for IP edge routers jumped 125 percent in 2009, despite a decline on the category overall. The company predicts a 10-fold increase in high-speed activity by 2014.

Clearly, the pressure is on for top-tier enterprises to deploy and provision high-speed Ethernet, so they are the ones facing the steepest learning curve as the technology unfolds. Of course, that's their lot in life: to work the bugs out of the cutting edge so it can trickle down to the larger community.

In this case, however, they might not want to charge ahead too quickly, lest they find themselves caught in a network dead-end that only significant engineering can overcome.

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