Timetable for 10 Gigabit Ethernet

The next generation of Ethernet is likely to have a profound effect on storage—pumped-up iSCSI performance may challenge Fibre Channel's tier 1 dominance.

It's barely even here yet, but 10Gb Ethernet (10GigE) is going to have a hard time living up to its hype. Hailed as a "game changing" technology by some, it carries the burden of being a cure-all for storage (and network) managers' problems. But when you look beyond the hyperbole surrounding 10GigE, you'll see the technology is, in many ways, still just emerging.

That's not to suggest that 10GigE won't deliver on its promise -- perhaps not a cure-all, but certainly destined to give iSCSI storage and Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) topologies a big boost. Still, real products are few and far between at this time, and per-port prices are still at a very un-Ethernet premium. While there have been some early adopters, its first few inroads into the market have been in higher-end implementations such as super-high-performance computing.

Switch vendors are starting down the 10GbE road with recent product releases and certifications. But it may still take some time for 10GbE to hit the mainstream. Brad Booth, chairman of the board of the Ethernet Alliance, thinks 2012 is when costs will be low enough for the market to see widespread adoption. "Generally when a standard is written, it takes about 10 years before it really hits what we consider the big volume adoption," he says. Booth calls

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those 2012 adopters "tier 3," and says that quicker-adopting tier 2 data centers are probably looking at 10Gb now and considering which cabling they'll choose. He cites Google as a tier 1 data center; they're now running a brand-new data center with 10GbE throughout, according to Booth.

10Gig rides on copper or fiber

Optical fiber: The earliest 10Gb Ethernet components were built around optical fiber, but copper cable-based products soon followed. In most data centers, copper is the standard transport for data and storage networks because it's relatively cheap and easy to install. But copper cabling typically can't carry a signal over long distances, so it's used primarily within buildings, while optical cabling is usually used to link facilities over longer distances.

There are a number of IEEE standards for optical cabling with 10Gb Ethernet, each designated by a unique identifier. For example, 10GBASE-SR (short distance) is the standard for the cheapest optical implementation that uses standard optical cabling; it can cover distances of approximately 30 meters to 90 meters. The next step up in price and distance is 10GBASE-LR (long range), which can carry signals up to 10km. There are several additional standards for 10Gig over optics that offer greater ranges.

Copper connections: For copper cabling, 10GBASE-CX4 is an IEEE standard approved approximately five years ago that uses familiar twin-axial cable. Also referred to as 802.3ak, this standard is based on cabling and connectors used for InfiniBand, although some reengineering was done so they're not identical. 10GBASE-CX4 is effective at distances up to 15 meters.

10GBASE-T, approved in 2006, is likely to gain widespread popularity. It uses unshielded (or shielded) twisted-pair cables and will work at up to 100 meters; companies may opt to use already installed Cat 6 cabling, but the distance with be effectively halved. Connectors for 10GBASE-T are familiar, too, RJ-45-style connectors rated at 650 MHz.

This was first published in February 2009

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