A Better Ethernet for a More Modern Data Center

Ethernet is evolving along with the data center, and sometimes that means incremental improvements rather than giant leaps forward.

By  | Posted Dec 12, 2014
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Amid all the turmoil set to hit data center network infrastructure in the coming year, it is important to note that traditional networking technologies need to cope with a rapidly changing world as well, and the solution is not always more bandwidth and throughput.

Ethernet, for example, has been the focus of a number of new standards initiatives designed to help the enterprise accommodate the growing diversity of the data ecosystem and the increasing reliance on wireless standards for everyday workloads.

2.5 and 5 GbE

The IEEE recently created a pair of study groups aimed at expanding the protocol’s configuration options in BASE-T networks. One would target campus-wide connectivity, while the other would develop a 25 GbE solution for server-to-server connectivity. Of the two, the campus solution, known as Enterprise Access BASE-T, addresses a more immediate concern given the need for most distributed infrastructures to support 2-4 Gbps Wi-Fi connectivity within the next three years. While this can certainly be done using 10 GBASE-T solutions, the fact is that most campus networks consist primarily of CAT5e cable, which does not support 10 GBASE-T – and even CAT6 performance is spotty depending on how it is configured. The goal, then, is to devise a CAT5e solution that incorporates multiple rates between 1 and 10 Gbps, plus automated rate negotiation and Power over Ethernet to foster a high level of flexibility.

At the same time, multiple groups are looking into mid-rate GbE solutions to help the enterprise ease that transition from 1 GbE or less to 10 GbE. The MGBASE-T Alliance consists of leading enterprise and carrier vendors like Brocade, Avaya and Broadcom in support of 2.5 and 5 Gbps standards. The work is on a parallel track with the NGBASE-T Alliance, supported largely by Cisco, that is also aiming at 2.5/5 GbE solutions, and both are said to be working with the IEEE in its wireless-facing efforts.

These initiatives are all part of a broader movement within the Ethernet community to tailor the format to address real-world problems, rather than force-fit solutions into a few broad standards, according to the Ethernet Alliance’s John D’Ambrosia. As he explained to ENP’s Sean Michael Kerner, 25 Gbps will certainly work for many situations, but the diversity of the data environment requires diversity of networking as well.

Why the data center needs a diversity of Ethernet standards

It is also fair to say that the leaps from 1 to 10 to 40 to 100 GBPS are very dramatic, forcing enterprises that need only a slight boost to either double up on lower-bandwidth solutions or deploy a higher-rate network that basically amounts to overkill. While it never hurts to deploy additional capacity within network infrastructure, the fact is some organizations might see half or even three-quarters of a high-bandwidth solution sit idle for years before data loads take up the slack.

Still, some may find it illogical to plan for lower-rate Ethernet when virtually every initiative on the table right now, from software defined networking to advanced virtual and cloud computing, is being optimized for 10 GbE. But as tech consultant Robin Harris points out, 10 GbE has had a fairly limited rollout even 10 years after its debut. Most deployments do cater to advanced applications that require multiple virtual machines and highly dynamic infrastructure, but the vast majority of PC-to-server connections is 1 GbE at best, so plenty of time remains to develop incremental steps to high-bandwidth connectivity to enable a more gradual upgrade.

In a way, the evolution of Ethernet mirrors that of the data center itself – from a general-purpose, one-size-fits-all solution to a vibrant, dynamic entity that can be molded and shaped to suit the application and data needs of the moment. Of course, this means it faces the same basic challenge as well: either find a way to give the people what they want, or fade into obsolescence.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

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