Work begins on new 40/100G Ethernet standard

A newly formed task force of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has begun reviewing technical proposals for a new standard for 40-Gigabit and 100-Gigabit Ethernet.

High-end networking products capable of these data rates could be available within two years.

The IEEE P802.3ba task force held its first meeting last week in Portland, Ore., and expects to have a ratified standard in 2010. The Higher Speed Study Group received approval for its project from the international standards body in November, and its status was elevated from study group to task force.

'That is a major step,' said Brad Booth, president of the Ethernet Alliance and a member of the task force. It means that the project has been vetted as not just technically possible but doable and worthwhile. 'There has to be a broad market potential, and it has to be economically feasible.'

Now operating as a task force, the body must evaluate competing proposals and reach a consensus on technical standards vendors will use in designing the equipment.

'That's when you get swamped by the tidal wave,' Booth said.

The fastest standard for Ethernet now is 10 gigabits/sec, and high-end carriers are beginning to max that capacity out. An Internet exchange carrier in Amsterdam already is aggregating eight lanes of 10G Ethernet, Booth said.

'Now that we have things like IPTV and the ability to do video on demand, the carriers are saying they need to more than 10 Gigabits,' he said. 'The will need 100 soon.'

Operating at a bandwidth of 100 gigabits/sec is more efficient, in terms of both financial cost and network overhead, than aggregating smaller pipes.

The IEEE in 2006 set 100G Ethernet as its next target. The decision to include 40G Ethernet in the same standard came later.

'When we started looking at 100G, a lot of server and storage vendors said they were just starting to look at 10G now,' Booth said. That speed is expected to serve that segment of the market for several years yet. A jump in speed of an order of magnitude was not needed, and hardware would not be able to adequately handle it. So 40 gigabits/sec was added as an interim step that would provide room for acceleration in the server and storage market without requiring the full jump to 100 gigabits/sec. The higher speed will be used primarily for network aggregation by major carriers.

The Higher Speed Study Group spent most of 2007 developing specs for the standards project. It calls for speeds of 40 gigabits/sec over a variety of media and 100 gigabits/sec over single-mode fiber for a maximum of 25 miles.

The bar for creating a standard is high. It requires approval of 75 percent of the task force members present at the meeting. There were more than 150 members present at the Portland meeting. Because the intent is to produce a standard that can be widely adopted and deployed, compromises are reached based not only on technical considerations but on a proposal's complexity and cost for manufacturers and operators.

The task force expects to meet every two months. The next meeting will be in March in Orlando, Fla., followed by a meeting in May in Munich, Germany. A first draft standard is expected by this fall with final ratification in about 2 1/2 years.

Users probably will not have to wait that long for products, however. As the proposed standard is firmed up, vendors probably will begin producing pre-standard equipment that can easily be upgraded to meet final requirements within two years, Booth said. That means vendors will be able to hit the ground running with interoperable equipment by the time the standard is finalized.

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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