Ethernet's where it's at

An increasing number of people believe ethernet metropolitan area networks really are the way of the future. In fact, ethernet MANs are already with us. In Wellington, CityLink was first cab off the rank. And in Auckland, United Networks is starting to market its CBD-wide ethernet-based services.

If you’re standing around at a party somewhere with your mind on reconfiguring the company network and someone sidles up and says “Ethernet, man, it’s the way of the future”, don’t write right them off as a hippy-era relic.

You probably misunderstood; what you were actually being told was “Ethernet MANs are the way of the future”. Instead of looking around the room for saner company, engage this person in conversation.

An increasing number of people believe ethernet metropolitan area networks really are the way of the future. In fact, ethernet MANs are already with us. In Wellington, CityLink was first cab off the rank. And in Auckland, United Networks is starting to market its CBD-wide ethernet-based services. Even Telecom has plans to get in on the act.

Ethernet, of course, is nothing new, dating back to the closing days of hippydom. The person credited with its invention is Bob Metcalfe, who, writing in Computerworld in 1993, described the birth like this: “Almost 20 years ago, arriving at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre on May 22, 1973, I turned on my IBM Selectric, pulled out a wad of Ko-Rectype, snapped on an Orator ball, and banged out the memo inventing ethernet.”

That was the introduction to a column in which Metcalfe was speculating on how LANs might look in 20 years. For all his perceptiveness – after inventing ethernet he went on to found network equipment maker 3Com – he may have underestimated just how pervasive ethernet would become. He had no doubts about the longevity of LANs, anticipating “one big uniform interconnected ATM cell-switching fabric” connecting them, but not taking their place. Ethernet between LANs didn’t enter the picture.

Why are ethernet MANs starting to appear? According to their boosters, ethernet services cost significantly less than more traditional carrier services; using the same standard ethernet as on LANs makes for simplicity of set up and management; and ethernet is scalable.

The local head of network hardware maker Allied Telesyn, Geoff Peck, elaborates on the price issue by pointing out that gigabit ethernet is a quarter of the cost of ATM. Peck, whose Christchurch facility is part of a US-Japanese company which makes both ethernet and ATM equipment, says “successful telcos are doing ethernet; it’s ethernet everywhere”. Peck, who was speaking to Computerworld at the end of last year, describes the trend as having taken hold in the previous 12 months.

UnitedNetworks, a gas supplier that is establishing itself as a wholesaler of bandwidth on Auckland and Wellington CBD fibre networks, also touts comparative cheapness and scalability as benefits of ethernet MANs. One of the services it is selling – through partners, it points out – is a bandwidth-on-demand offering which will scale up to 1Gbit/s. It will also do you a deal that provides you with, say, a 10Mbit/s link for most of the day and 150Mbit/s when your network is busiest. As for prices, because the company can push fibre through its gas reticulation network at a fraction of the cost of digging up the ground, wholesale bandwidth rates are about a quarter of the usual going rate. Asked what prices end users will pay, however, and the company says that is down to its partners; they, by the sounds of it, will not be sacrificing juicy margins by dramatically undercutting incumbent bandwidth suppliers.

And speaking of incumbents, as long ago as 1999 Telecom talked of the possibility of providing ethernet services to the basement of customer premises (where an ATM switch would be installed) as part of a Universal Customer Access Node (UCAN) project. We’re not sure what’s happened since.

Needless to say, there’s another side to the ethernet MAN story. There’s the question of fibre reach – although United says it will extend its network to buildings not already connected but within its two loops. There’s also the issue of staying power of ethernet service providers -- CityLink has been around for several years but United’s a newcomer, and we’ve all witnessed the recent ISP comings and goings; and there’s the fact that only the big cities have fibre networks.

Moves are under way to solve some of the uncertainties. In the US, the Metro Ethernet Forum has been established by several dozen companies with a view to accelerating the adoption of ethernet MANs. It has developed a model for the kinds of services that might be provided and is grappling with quality-of-service (QoS) issues. Ethernet’s the way of the future, man.

Doesburg, Computerworld's edtior, attends some very geeky parties. Send letters for publication to Computerworld Letters.

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