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Soz, switch-fondlers: Doesn't look like 2013 is 10Gb Ethernet's year

Recession-bashed users are waiting for another ball to drop

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It is becoming increasingly unlikely that 2013 will be the year that sees widespread adoption of 10 gigabit Ethernet. Of course we'll be told it will be, just as we have been told for years that wholesale shift is right on the horizon. The reason? It's not a question of technological capability – the technology for 10GbE has been solid for quite some time – but rather a simple question of cost.

When 1000Base-T took over the world, you could take your 10/100 device, plug it in to your 10/100/1000 switch and it would "just work." More importantly, the cost per port for 1GbE ports on switches dropped so low that we collectively don't feel that we are throwing money away if we don't maintain high throughput on those links. 1GbE is there if we need it, even if most of the time we don't.

Some believe that 10GbE looks set to follow the same pattern, but even these optimists are predicting that it will be 2014 before 10Gbase-T sees more annual deployments than the alternatives. Even then, we'll still be dealing with a mishmash of deployed 10GbE interface types.

Price still is the barrier here. 1000Base-T can be had for $10 per switch port. Cost per port of most common 10GbE port type - SFP+ - is already kissing $300 per switch port (for single-switch purchases) and I expect that to be driven down below $200 before the end of the year. 10Gbase-T remains slightly more expensive than SFP+ per switch port, and is significantly rarer amongst the commodity switch vendors than SFP+.

Cisco (PDF) would like to tell you that the time of 10Gbase-T is now... Of course it has to rely on malarkey like "cost per gigabit" to sell the idea. Most businesses aren't going to flatten our links, so trying to sell 10GbE with the assumption that we will is just a flashing neon sign that says the vendor in question is completely unwilling to participate in the commoditisation of the 10GbE market.

But fancy PowerPoint slides talking about "10x the bandwidth at only 3x the cost" deliberately avoid addressing the reality of tepid mainstream adoption: the bulk of businesses just don't need 10x the bandwidth and aren't willing to pay 3x the cost.

If your switching infrastructure is Cisco end-to-end you probably don't care about cost. You also aren't likely to care about $100 SFP+ direct attach cables or $300 SFP+ fibre transceivers. If your businesses relies on commodity SMB switches, then you – like me – are lashing together virtually free 1Gbit links to make do while waiting around for 10GbE to drop to a reasonable price.

Cisco, Juniper and the rest aren't going to drive commodisation. They are already facing the spectre of their own potential irrelevance in 2013. Software defined networks look set to become a thing, finally eliminating the proprietary stranglehold these vendors have had on our core infrastructure for decades.

Intel has already put 10GbE onto the motherboard in a big way, commoditising the endpoint part of the equation. Tomorrow's servers will be all dressed up for the 10GbE ball, but for many companies, they'll have no one to talk to.

As one of the giants in the switching silicon space, Intel could choose tomorrow to make the 10Gbase-T market explode in the space of a single quarter. The firm makes excellent 10GbE switching silicon - getting into the hands of a D-Link or a Netgear for rock-bottom prices would redefine the entire space.

Unfortunately for us, Intel doesn't look set to ride to the rescue of the SME market in 2013 - its switching silicon is currently being deployed as high-end competition to folks like Cisco. Dropping that to commodity class this early in the game just doesn't make sense.

With the mobile world heating up, and pressures to crank out an ever-increasing number of various different chips, it looks more and more like nobody else out there has the spare fab capacity to drive down the cost of 10GbE switching silicon; especially not the new 40nm stuff that has finally brought 10Gbase-T into the realm of reasonable power efficiency. (Though if you really care about power consumption, 10Gbase-T is still not a real consideration.)

So we wait - another year, maybe two. If you were holding off upgrades in hopes that switch prices would magically plummet this year, don't. The year of 10GbE will arrive eventually, but 2013 won't be it. ®

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