Ethernet in 2015: Embracing Diversity

By: John D’Ambrosia

Happy New Year and welcome to the 2015 edition of the continuing saga known as Ethernet. As 2014 ended, Ethernet’s activities continued to range from the DC to 400 Gb/s, just as they had done at the beginning of the year. 2014, however, will surely go down in the annals of “Etherhistory” as one of its most tumultuous. The Ethernet community broke further from its tradition of leaping by factors of 10 to officially pursue 25GbE and also began exploring the possibilities of 2.5GbE and 5GbE.

I think that is how I will personally remember 2014. With the chains of its past finally shaken, the Ethernet community accepted the fact that there are valid reasons to step outside a 10x magnitude jump in approaching new rates of Ethernet. Last year, Dell’s Gavin Cato spoke at the Ethernet Alliance’s Technology Exploration Forum: The Rate Debate, and I liked the way he summed up the industry climate: “Ethernet needs to embrace diversity of applications.” The Ethernet market has become large enough to enable niche applications that are customized in a practical and profitable manner.

400GbE, 25GbE, 2.5GbE and 5GbE development drivers and the role of 802.11ac

The 400GbE development effort, started in the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet Working Group back in March 2013, remains driven by the need to provide higher speed solutions for core networking applications that depend on the aggregation of data. The development of 25GbE started in July of 2014, spurred by the initial need of cloud-scale data centers for a cost-optimized solution for the server-to-switch interconnect. The development of interest in a 2.5GbE and 5GbE speed is being driven by the need for higher speeds from wireless access points that will be upgraded to support IEEE 802.11ac wireless technology but have an existing Cat 5E or Cat 6 Unshielded Twisted Pair (UTP) cabling infrastructure.

As these different efforts are considered, the gurus of the Ethernet industry try to weave some common thread between the applications that is not based on 10x the performance for 3x the cost, or the next step in serial lane rates out of ASICs, or perhaps even the media constraints of an installed application base. In truth, there are different justifications for each of these efforts, and the true common thread between all of them is the call for a market-relevant standard that will enable multi-vendor interoperability in each of the relevant application areas.  

Nevertheless, while participants in the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet Working Group wrestled with the new rates being proposed for these different application spaces, the Ethernet Alliance focused much of its energy on multi-vendor interoperability demonstrations. Three demonstrations were held in 2014. At OFC 2014, the “Optics of Ethernet” were showcased and optical solutions from 10GbE to 40GbE to 100GbE were highlighted. At Interop 2014, 10GbE and 40GbE technologies demonstrated how data centers could converge all of its networking needs using Ethernet solutions. Finally, at Supercomputing 2014, 10GbE, 40GbE, and 100GbE-based solutions from multiple vendors were networked together to emulate a cloud-scale data center with representative traffic. With each successive demonstration, the Ethernet Alliance showcased today’s Ethernet solutions as real technology for real deployments.

Ethernet forecast for 2015

Looking ahead to 2015, we expect to see the intense activity around the development of 25GbE and next-generation Ethernet enterprise access networks continue, while the industry coalesces around standards-based environments where multiple vendors can interoperate. Furthermore, industry development on 400GbE will continue as the IEEE P802.3bs 400GbE Task Force looks to progress the effort past initial proposals. The Ethernet Alliance, as the voice of the Ethernet industry, will continue to drive consensus-building to elevate critical technologies, further adoption, and speed deployment of IEEE 802-based solutions, helping to ensure the Ethernet ecosystem continues to flourish.

Bob Metcalfe once told me that Ethernet is “a brand of innovation.” In my opinion, Bob’s is the best definition of Ethernet I have ever heard. However, this relatively simple statement hides the industry effort that goes into the development of a standard that enables multi-vendor interoperability to the actual testing that enables the successful deployment of solutions based on these various standards. Ethernet’s continuing success is an ongoing testament to this industry commitment.

Perhaps this is the true legacy of Ethernet.

Header photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

John D’Ambrosia is Chairman of the Ethernet Alliance and Chief Ethernet Evangelist in the CTO office at Dell.

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