Optical/IP Networks

Comes the Ethernet Revolution

Scott Clavenna - Director of Research at Light Reading All advocates of optical networking are revolutionaries at heart. After all, we want to build a better tomorrow, one that consigns the bottlenecks and backups of today’s Internet to the Dustbin of History and delivers cheap, plentiful bandwidth to the masses.

Ironically enough, this is one revolution that’s got the backing of the network “owners” — the carriers, CLECs, and service providers who see brave new profit in this brave new world.

As I detailed last time out, Ethernet is the key to transforming the public network (see
Endless Ethernet?). All the carriers will eventually use this technology as a universal interface to their networks, leveraging its low cost and scalability to transport all manner of IP services end to end.

I also pointed out that optical Ethernet need not be “pure packet.” With the right hardware and software it can easily be provisioned over a next-gen Sonet structure.

But if the past 20 years of networking has taught us anything, it’s that top-down revolutions rarely succeed. So why do I believe so fervently that optical Ethernet will not wind up being ATM all over again?

Because this is a populist movement, driven by legions of network users. They may not sing defiant songs while ATM heads roll into a basket. But they will line up behind optical Ethernet because its message is compellingly straightforward and pragmatic.

Thus far, discussions about optical Ethernet have centered on how it speeds provisioning, reduces operations and services costs, and manages IP services as deftly as Sonet add/drop muxes manage phone calls. David Yates of Atrica Systems puts it succinctly: “Transmission bandwidth is the foundation for all value-added services in the network.”

That’s good news for network operators looking for low-cost solutions that support IP, something that can turn all their bandwidth into real service revenues. In fact, optical Ethernet delivers bandwidth at such low costs that carriers have an opportunity to completely rethink how they design and build their networks.
This begs a simple question: Do enterprise networks need to be transformed? Well... Yes. They’re expensive to scale and maintain. They require constant reconfiguration as new users or remote sites are added. And they lock IT managers into an endless cycle of training to keep up with new technologies and services.

I defy you to find an enterprise network manager who wouldn’t like to add users easily; increase bandwidth between locations without deploying a mesh of private lines; reduce WAN services costs; trim specially trained IT staff; and outsource some apps or backup storage servers when necessary.

And then try to find one who doesn’t want more bandwidth — way more bandwidth. Can optical Ethernet deliver?

Yes — given the right combination of equipment and services support.

Let’s take that net managers’ wish list item by item:

  • Add users to the network
    With an optical Ethernet service, users and locations can be added via simple LAN-switch port attachment. Ideally, they should have the equivalent LAN-like access to all network resources, collapsing the network to a virtual LAN. If you’re not on the network, you need your service provider to get you on. This could take time and involve deploying new fiber or alternate last-mile solutions. Time will tell how long the last-mile bottleneck remains.

  • Increase bandwidth easily
    Most optical Ethernet services offer some kind of customer network management that allows service providers or end-users to provision bandwidth via software commands. And this bandwidth is cheap, compared with adding T1 lines between sites. Typically, no new facilities need to be added to the network, just increased switch capacity on the ring. Optical Ethernet solutions add the verifiable and assured SLAs (service-level agreements) missing in today’s gigabit Ethernet switches.

  • Reduce WAN service costs
    This is a real home run and will be realized early and gratefully by most enterprise users. There are two ways to quantify this advantage. First, WAN bandwidth should be cheaper with Ethernet because the associated transport equipment is so much cheaper than ATM/Sonet gear or multiple routers.

    Second, the CPE (customer premises equipment) is much cheaper, requiring only a port on a low-cost gigabit Ethernet switch. You can get those from Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), Extreme Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: EXTR), or Foundry Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: FDRY) for less than ten grand. Compared with a frame relay switch, router, CSU/DSU, or whatever a WAN manager has been using before, this can result in savings of up to 90 percent.

  • Trim specially trained IT staff
    Ethernet services can be managed by a LAN manager. In fact, some Ethernet services don’t even require the customer to have a router on the premises. A managed service that includes firewalling can easily deliver the features offered by frame relay, at a much lower price with a significantly lower cost of ownership. The only gear at the customer premises is a LAN switch, which was already there.

    Managing network services now becomes as easy as managing the LAN. The IT staff can go back to overseeing apps, setting up a high-bandwidth intranet, or other more valuable activities. This also means that small and medium-sized businesses can migrate to high-bandwidth services without staffing an IT group.

This gets to the heart of why Ethernet will not go away. It so easily satisfies the requirements of both the service provider and the user.

It also gets to a possible big payoff for the enterprise: network-centric computing.

No sooner are those words out than the specter of Larry Ellison, Oracle, appears. After all, he has long argued that the network is where the action is, not the PC, which can be dumbed down to take advantage of advanced networking technologies and available bandwidth. In Ellison’s view, the PC provides an easy-to-use interface to the resources of “The Network,” which can be the Internet or a departmental LAN or anything in between.

Bill Gates, Ellison’s archnemesis, has become the world’s richest human being by betting that the PC is where it’s at. For Gates, the network doesn’t do much more than deliver basic connectivity between processing- and storage-rich desktops.

Optical Ethernet proves they’re both right. The network can now carry sufficient bandwidth to support a mix of centralized resources and outsourced storage, for example, while empowering PCs to be as user-defined and customizable as possible. You can focus your energies on either your PC or your databases — either way, you have the bandwidth to make it happen.

To see how, let’s take a look at typical enterprise. Distributing network resources like file servers, databases, and storage means distributing the management of those resources. That means cost, complexity, and complications trying to scale the network uniformly.

Consider an enterprise with one large data center and eight remote sites in a metro area. Corporate networkers typically link those sites with private lines. Some may opt for frame relay, creating a VPN (virtual private network) among sites — particularly if they’re distributed over a relatively large geographic area.

This level of interconnection is fairly low speed, one or a few T1s, which doesn’t add up to much if end-users are accessing remote storage or multimedia databases and content. It certainly doesn’t qualify as LAN-like access. To get that, enterprises typically distribute servers to each of those sites, giving users fast, reliable access to the content they regularly work with.

But here’s the catch. Eight 10-user application licenses cost more than one 80-user license. What’s more, if a new software revision comes out, users may not all be upgraded at the same time, limiting the sharing of files within the enterprise. In all likelihood, folks at corporate HQ will have much better IT support than those at remote sites.

Here’s where optical Ethernet can lend a big hand, courtesy of its cheap, flexible bandwidth.

In the network-centric model, an enterprise subscribes to an optical Ethernet service or builds its own private network, connecting remote sites to HQ over low-cost gigabit Ethernet links. Remote users appear as nodes on an Ethernet LAN. They have the same access to network resources as anyone else. According to Bob Schiff of Lantern Communications, “The distinction between LAN and WAN becomes more that of administrative and operations ownership than that of bandwidth and geography.”

The enterprise can now move all databases, file servers, storage servers, and other resources back to headquarters (or outsource some of them if they grow too large to handle). This immediately improves operations, reliability, and manageability. Remote sites require only a single LAN manager. The specialists remain at HQ, but in this scenario there’s no unequal distribution of services or support. If a new version of some corporate software appears, all users immediately have access to it. And when the MIS director decides to outsource storage, optical Ethernet is equally capable of delivering the goods.

Clearly, it takes time to transform computing paradigms. But the success of optical Ethernet doesn’t depend on enterprises adopting an entirely new computing model. Optical Ethernet allows the enterprise to put computing where it makes the most sense — centralized, outsourced, or wherever it belongs. Unlike most things in life, optical Ethernet has two upsides: one for service providers, the other for the enterprise. Both will benefit to such a large extent that there is one inescapable conclusion: Vive la révolution!

You can use our message board to comment on the revolution in the making or register your counter-revolutionary complaints. Just use the link below.

— Scott Clavenna is president of PointEast Research LLC and director of research at Light Reading http://www.lightreading.com
brucemc 12/4/2012 | 8:53:57 PM
re: Comes the Ethernet Revolution Isn't Ethernet just another form of network connectivity? Agreed, optical Ethernet will lower the cost points of data transmission, which will allow the introduction of new services which previously weren't economically viable, but Ethernet itself doesn't offer a service beyond connectivity.

Examples of "services" are: Internet Access, LAN-to-LAN connectivity (transparent), managed connectivity (outsourced), private voice, public voice access, application outsourcing, and the list goes on. All of these services require IP (generally) connectivity, and the cheaper & faster, the better. However, all can and have been offered by many forms of IP connectivity: Frame Relay, ATM, POS, and Ethernet, all over form of optical transmission.

The "type" of network connectivity offers various attributes, to lesser or minor degrees, in each case: cheap & ubiquitous Ethernet, virtual circuits and QoS for ATM (with added complexity); tried & true & understood SONET as the transport layer.

Optical Ethernet, like Frame Relay, ATM, and PPP before it, should offer improved network economics and faster speeds. This in turn will lead to new and more cost-effective services to develop. And then Ethernet will be replaced by something better (whatever that will be:).

Ace 12/4/2012 | 8:53:53 PM
re: Comes the Ethernet Revolution
> However, all can and have been offered by many > forms of IP connectivity: Frame Relay, ATM,
> POS, and Ethernet, all over form of optical
> transmission.

Yes, these are all data link envelopes, responsible for passing data from one node to another. But, of those you mention, Ethernet is the only "packet-based" layer 2. It can wrap a variable length IP packet, and thus is more efficient (payload vs. non-payload) in carrying IP.

> And then Ethernet will be replaced by
> something better (whatever that will be:).

With 350,000,000 ports deployed, as the network interface to 95% of PCs, $15 100Mbps cards, with 10M to 10Gbps scalability, ... I would not bet on a change in my lifetime.

mbmorrissey 12/4/2012 | 8:53:09 PM
re: Comes the Ethernet Revolution Are the EtherLEC's (Intellispace, Yipes, Cogent) currently sending both Data and Voice on their networks? How long until they can take out the local switch companies last mile completely?

fiber_r_us 12/4/2012 | 8:53:08 PM
re: Comes the Ethernet Revolution Level 3 is... but I wouldn't call them a LEC...
fk 12/4/2012 | 8:52:05 PM
re: Comes the Ethernet Revolution Scott-

You talk about ATM as if it's a dead market. I agree that ATM's limitations make it particularly vulnerable to more efficient and lower cost solutions. My question is where can I find market information that shows how ATM is doing relative to competing technologies (or even by itself)? Do you have any URLs which illustrate what you are referring to when you say "optical Ethernet will not wind up being ATM all over again?"
whalenc 12/4/2012 | 8:51:10 PM
re: Comes the Ethernet Revolution The real clincher in Scott's article is the lower COS for the ethernet LAN. The implications for reducing admin costs for large users (and earnings for many hardware shops) are quite amusing.

Sign In