Sunday, November 9, 2014

Beyond Gigabit Ethernet

Where wired connections can be made, they will always provide superior performance to that of wireless techniques. Since the commercialization of the telegraph over 175 years ago mankind has been looking for ever faster ways to encode & transfer information. The wired standard we’re all most familiar with today is Gigabit Ethernet (GbE). It runs throughout your office to your desktop, phone, printers, copiers, and wireless access points. It is the most pervasive method in the enterprise for reliably linking devices. So what’s next?

Two weeks ago if you’d have asked most technology professionals they would have answered 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE). That was the commonly accepted plan. Then Cisco, Aquantia, Freescale & Xilinx announced an alliance to further develop & promote a proposed Next Generation (NBase-T) wired standard supporting 2.5GbE & 5GbE speeds over existing installed wires (Category 5a & 6) cables. We all know Cisco, and that’s enough to get pretty much everyone’s attention, but who are the other three? Aquantia is one of the leaders in producing the physical interface (PHY) chips that exist at both ends of the wire. Switch companies like Cisco use Aquantia, as do network interface card companies like Solarflare, Intel, and Chelsio. Aquantia has figured out how to take digital information and encode it into electrical signals designed to travel at very high speeds through very noisy wires. Then on the other end their chips have the smarts to find the signal within the vast amounts of noise created by the wires themselves. Freescale & Xilinx are a bit further up the food chain, they make more programmable chips that can be positioned between Aquantia & Cisco’s switch logic, or the Intel processor in your computer.

So why did Cisco push to form the NBase-T Alliance, what do they gain from this investment? It turns out that improvements in Wireless networking are behind this, and Cisco has a large wireless business. In commercial environments wireless access points now use a wider range on frequencies in parallel so they can service more of our wireless devices. These access points are pushing the limits on the back end with what GbE is capable of. Since most enterprises are already wired with Cat5a or Cat6 rewiring to support 10GbE would be very expensive. Hence the drive towards NBase-T.

The question though is how about performance desktop users? Folks doing video editing, simulation, or anything that is data intensive could easily push well beyond GbE. We’re now starting to see Apple & others ship 4K resolution desktop computers, and displays. These devices can be huge data consumers. What’s the plan for supporting them beyond GbE? The answer still appears to be 10GbE, but time will tell.

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