100 Gigabit Ethernet by 2010: IEEE

The institute has approved work towards a 100Gbit/s ethernet standard. Stephen Lawson reports

Ethernet will keep accelerating, speeding up to 100Gbit/s in the next few years, the head of an IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) standards study group says.

A special study group of the institute has agreed on a target for the next generation of the ubiquitous data networking technology. The 100Gbit/s version of Ethernet will be ten times faster than the current fastest type, 10 Gigabit Ethernet. But vendors as well as users represented in the group, including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and cable operator Comcast, see a need for that kind of speed down the road, says John D’Ambrosia, chair of the group. Such a speedy version of Ethernet will serve the needs of both enterprises and carriers, he says.

Ethernet was introduced more than 30 years ago and became popular as a 10Mbit/s system for enterprise LANs. Along the way, Fast Ethernet (100Mbit/s), Gigabit Ethernet and 10 Gigabit Ethernet have been added. Because each was standardised, many vendors have been able to compete and prices have been driven down. New Ethernet versions began life aggregating streams of packets from lower-speed connections and, in turn, were later aggregated into fatter pipes that used the latest high speed.

Video, high-performance computing and the increasing demands of applications in datacentres will require faster connections, says D’Ambrosia, who is also scientist of components technology at high-end Ethernet switch vendor Force10 Networks. The study group was formed in July to decide what speed the IEEE should try to achieve in the next standard. On November 23 at an IEEE meeting in Dallas, 100Gbit/s achieved the required 75% vote within the study group.

Other possible speeds were considered, including 40, 80 and 120Gbit/s, but they didn’t attract enough backing. The group weighed the time and effort required to achieve a speed against how well it would meet the needs that exist when it becomes available, D’Ambrosia says.

Between that vote and 100Gbit/s Ethernet hitting the market, the IEEE needs to approve the formation of a working group that will then figure out how to achieve the higher speed. Judging from the development of earlier standards, D’Ambrosia says standard 100Gbit/s Ethernet products are likely to become available in late 2009 or early 2010.

The challenges this time will be similar to those in the past, only harder, he says. Among them are heat and power requirements and enabling faster communication among the chips inside networking equipment. Like other steps up in Ethernet speed, it is likely to appear first in equipment that uses optical fibre. Getting it to work over copper wires will be harder than ever, D’Ambrosia says, but he wouldn’t rule it out. The cycle never ends, he says.

“This will never be the last higher speed study group,” D’Ambrosia says. “We’ll get this done and eventually there will be a push for another speed after this.”

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