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The insatiable thirst for bandwidth

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The networking landscape has altered, and altered considerably since the 1970s, a decade that saw both the introduction of shoulder pads and the beginnings of the Ethernet network. In the thirty or so years since, fashion has, thankfully, moved on and so, too, has networking, which is what concerns us here. In particular what’s coming next and what the benefits might be.

If there’s one thing that never changes, it’s an insatiable thirst for bandwidth. Mostly in the data centre where, currently, companies are busy migrating servers from Gigabit to 10GbE, thanks to vendors such as Dell, HP and IBM incorporating 10Gig interfaces onto rack and blade motherboards. Those, in turn, are being cabled to readily available 10GbE switches to cope with the demands of server consolidation and virtualisation, private cloud deployment and an increasingly distributed and mobile workforce.

On the rack

With the ratification of the 802.3ba standards for 40 and 100GbE in June 2010, however, the race to deliver even more bandwidth to the back-end looks set to move up a gear. It’s early days yet and distinguishing between the hype and reality isn’t easy, but 40GbE top-of-rack and backbone switches have started to put in an appearance. Mostly these are from specialist vendors such as Force 10 Networks, although the big names are quietly lining up to follow suit over coming months.

40GbE is largely seen as a stepping stone to 100GbE, but that isn’t expected to make it to the data centre until at least 2013, followed by Terabit networking technologies towards the end of the decade. Moreover, there are issues to be overcome along the way, in terms of managing and fully exploiting the extra capacity which may delay adoption still further.

That said, the drivers continue to grow, not least the need to handle a growing number of bandwidth-hungry applications. These include on-demand media streaming and SaaS application delivery (aka cloud computing) which, to succeed, need the scalability and low latency connectivity that high-bandwidth technologies have to offer.

As well as facilitating the adoption of new applications, high bandwidth technology can also help when it comes to cabling – a significant issue in increasingly crowded data centres. Added to which it helps facilitate a general trend towards a flatter switch architecture, the aim being to, similarly, reduce cost and complexity.

High fibre diet

Another, less obvious, benefit could be to add impetus to the adoption of iSCSI storage networking, originally seen as an SMB solution, but increasingly making itself felt in the corporate data centre as an alternative to the more costly Fibre Channel SAN.

And if that wasn’t enough, the recent ratification of the Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) standard throws yet another iron into the fire, making it possible for enterprise customers to hold onto the performance and reliability benefits of Fibre Channel, but implement it using cheaper Ethernet hardware without the limitations of the IP-based iSCSI protocol.

So, we have quite a lot of new and exciting technology to look forward to in the data centre, with additional security and bandwidth management features also likely to be incorporated into the switch fabric. Out on the wider network, however, there’s no obvious demand for anything beyond Gigabit to the desktop, other than in exceptional circumstances.

Big changes are likely, though, when it comes to wireless, with Wi-Fi becoming all-pervasive, and fast becoming the preferred option even where wired connections are available. As a result questions have been asked as to whether the 600Mbps possible with 802.11n is really enough, with Gigabit wireless standards already in development that could lead to yet faster Wi-Fi as early as 2012.

Just in time, perhaps, to put pressure on those newly invigorated backbone networks. ®

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