If you thought the Ethernet standards world was settling down, think again. Two separate alliances, one featuring Brocade and the other Cisco, are developing different specifications for Ethernet speeds between 1 Gbit/s and 10 Gbit/s, for which there is growing demand.
The MGBase-T Alliance, a group of tech companies that includes Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), is working on Ethernet standards for 2.5 GBit/s and 5 Gbit/s to unlock potential bandwidth bottlenecks between WiFi access points (APs) and switches without getting rid of existing UTP cable. That group this week came out in support of the IEEE's recently announced efforts.
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) , a driving force behind WiFi standards, formed a study group last month to look at Ethernet speeds between 1 Gbit/s and 10 Gbit/s, the only other standard options available today for high speeds over UTP (unshielded twisted-pair) cabling. Most installed cable is Cat5e or Cat 6, which can run 1GBit/s Ethernet over distances up to 100 meters, but is only good for 10 Gbit/s for about half that distance. To run 10 Gbit/s at up to 100 meters, an upgrade to UTP Cat6a cable would be needed, and that's expensive. The new specs are being developed to enable 2.5 Gbit/s and 5 Gbit/s at up to 100 meters using Cat5e or Cat 6.
So the new speeds could be useful in a number of ways: Aside from helping enterprises take advantage of faster APs based on the IEEE 802.11ac standard, and avoid costly replacement of existing cable infrastructure, 2.5G/5G Ethernet could help service providers with WiFi offload and, in a few years' time, similarly support small cell backhaul.
Just don't expect industry-wide product interoperability anytime soon. At least that's the view of Siva Valliappan, VP for campus line of business at Brocade Communications Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: BRCD), an MGBase-T member. He reckons it'll take another two or three years before large-scale interoperability is on the cards. "IEEE collaboration is an important first step, but we're probably some way out on a standard everyone can agree on," he says.
The other group of suppliers, the NBase-T Alliance led by Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) and featuring Aquantia, Cavium, Freescale, Intel and Xilinx, was formed in October. That's also looking to develop 2.5G/5G Ethernet.
While the MGBase-T Alliance draws heavily on leveraging specifications already defined in IEEE 802.3 10GBase-T -- and then "works down" on how to support 2.5G and 5G Ethernet -- it's Valliappan's understanding that NBase-T takes a more "from-the-ground-up" approach.
Not that there can't be common ground. Valliappan told Light Reading that Brocade submitted paperwork on Tuesday to join NBase-T. "It's in the best interests of Brocade and our customers to get both groups to converge on a single spec," he says. "If there's bifurcation in how we handle intermediate speeds [between 1000Base-T and 10GBase-T] then things just aren't going to interoperate."
The immediate challenge is to get the members within each group to work seamlessly with each other. Simon Assouad, president of MGBase-T and associate director of product marketing at Broadcom Corp. (Nasdaq: BRCM), thinks alliance members will have a platform in place next year demonstrating interoperability between them (although he can't vouch when actual member products will be ready).
MGBase-T was quietly launched in June, but Assouad says membership has "increased significantly" during the past couple of months. Aside from Brocade and Broadcom, other alliance members are: Aruba Networks, Avaya, Delta Electronics, Delta Networks, Freescale Semiconductor (also part of NBase-T), Pulse Electronics and Ruijie Networks.
Assouad would not be drawn on differences with the Cisco-led group, only to stress MGBase-T has adopted a royalty-free spec and is open for all members. For the sake of industry-wide interoperability he said he was open to talks with the NBase-T.
Helping to focus minds on these new Ethernet developments is, of course, the arrival of so-called "Wave 2" 802.11ac APs, expected next year, which introduces WiFi to multi-user MIMO (MU-MIMO), a smart antenna technology that allows multiple users to simultaneously access the same channel and so boost available radio capacity. "With 3x3 and 4x4 radio 802.11ac we can see APs moving to 2.4 Gbit/s, 3.9 Gbit/s and 7.9 Gbit/s over the next few years," says Brocade's Valliappan. (See Qualcomm Advances WiFi With MIMO and Wi-Fi Alliance Begins Certifying 802.11ac.)
Since many enterprise APs use Cate5e cable to connect to switches, this link then becomes a potential bottleneck if end-users can't take advantage of higher-speed APs to access cloud-based services and applications. By using 2.5G/5G Ethernet, designed to run on Cat5e, enterprises can then avoid the expense of upgrading to Cat6a cable to increase capacity.
Aside from WiFi offload, Valliappan sees backhaul for small cells (without a fiber connection) as another possible use case for 2.5G/5G Ethernet in a few years' time when demand for mobile capacity increases.
— Ken Wieland, contributing editor, special to Light Reading