Still Room for Copper in High-Speed Networks

Arthur Cole

Upgrading to high-speed Ethernet is an expensive proposition, but it has to be done if you hope to leverage the virtual and cloud infrastructures that are coming your way.

Fortunately, bumping up throughput from current 1 GbE or less to the preferred 10 GbE for advanced networking can be done without one of the most expensive enterprise propositions of all: swapping out copper infrastructure for optical fiber.

Most of the high-speed networking vendors are bending over backwards these days to provide copper-based or hybrid copper/fiber switching, routing and other network gear that is fully capable of providing 10 GbE or 16 G Fibre Channel line rates without pulling miles of wire out of the walls.

Many of these systems depend on new generations of ICs that deliver not only improved performance, but many high-end networking tasks over plain old copper.

One of the latest entrants is Vitesse Semiconductor's VSC8248 Quad Interconnect IC, which supports 10 Gbps SFP+ applications in both optical interconnects and 10GBASE-SR, -LR and -LRM formats, as well as 8.5 G Fibre Channel FC-PI-4 specifications. Aimed at storage, server and router implementations, the unit also provides integrated diagnostics for remote monitor, fault isolation and scalability past 100,000 ports.

Broadcom is improving its copper capabilities as well, through a new line of 10 GbE physical layer (PHY) transceivers that support 802.3 10 GBASE-T drops over 100 meters. The device uses basic RJ45 connectors for either shielded or unshielded twisted pair, and keeps power consumption under 4 watts per port through a new 40 nm process.

Similar developments are taking place in Europe where Britain's Phyworks has just come out with the PHY2210, an equalizing cable transceiver that the company says extends the reach of 10 GbE signals over active copper cables to more than 15 meters. Using a 5x5mm QFN design, the unit limits maximum power dissipation to 500 mW and cuts down on cable assembly costs by shifting control and initialization to a low-cost external microcontroller or EEPROM.

Even those interested in advanced Layer 2 and Layer 3 switching have new options that include copper in high-speed integrated fabrics. Extreme Networks's new Extreme Summit X480 switch offers 48-port 10/100/1000 functionality with stackable switching capability up to 1.8 TB for either fiber or copper networks. An optional VIM2 converts the device into a 40 GbE uplink or stacking support module.

Clearly, a fiber infrastructure will afford greater room for expansion going forward than a copper one, but most enterprises have to deal with the plant they have, not what they wish it to be.

In that regard, it's comforting to know that copper at least affords the ability to put high-speed networking into place, and then upgrades can take place gradually without breaking the bank.

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