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Who Wants Metro Ethernet?

Smile pretty, Ethernet.

The networking architecture  first developed 30 years ago is about to get a really big closeup now that networking vendors Nortel, Cisco and Juniper Networks have unveiled a barrage of carrier grade Ethernet products.

What's driving the rollout? So-called quad plays, such as voice, data, video and mobile offerings by major carriers. Ethernet for metro networks is seen as a way to build out more bandwidth with the growth of digital media assets.

So where does that leave the more traditional protocols such as SONET ? Still on the upswing and still being deployed, too.

The two technologies may not necessarily compete with each other. But right now, it's Ethernet's time to shine in an expanding IP-based world. At least, that's the gambit by Cisco, Nortel and Juniper, which are looking to overcome carriers' historical reluctance to deploy Metro Ethernet technologies for their backbone networks.

That helps explain why Nortel formed a new Metro Ethernet Networks business unit just last month. The company is rolling out a new Ethernet technology called Provider Backbone Transport (PBT).

Philippe Morin, president of the business unit, said "PBT transforms Ethernet into a more reliable, scalable and deterministic technology suitable to carry high-bandwidth real-time services like IPTV, mobile video, and business Ethernet services."

Juniper Networks is introducing new Ethernet service cards and an Ethernet Services engine for its M and T-series routing platforms. For Juniper, the move is all about helping carriers migrate from their legacy networks to Ethernet.

Tom DiMicelli, product marketing manager at Juniper, noted that Juniper's new Ethernet services provide an advanced feature set that will help service providers migrate their services from traditional ATM  and Frame Relay  networks to Ethernet infrastructure.

"This is critically important in business services," DiMicelli told internetnews.com. "The vast majority still reside on ATM, Frame and Leased line networks."

According to DiMicelli, Quality of Service (QoS) assurances on Ethernet services have not been at the same level as legacy networks. Juniper's new Ethernet products aim to overcome that gap, especially with IPTV buildouts driving demand for Ethernet.

"Once you have this type of convergence you're going to need to be able to provide QoS on an end-to-end basis in an efficient manner," DiMicelli said.

Hybrids Arrive

Cisco Systems is taking a decidedly hybrid approach to helping carriers move from their legacy networks. The Cisco ONS 15600 MSSP (multi-service provisioning platform )is being enhanced with what's called an Any Service Any Port (ASAP) 40G Line Card. The Line Card also supports any rate, such as OC-3/STM-1 to OC-192/STM-64, and any protocol, such as Ethernet or SONET.

"The era of the MSPP (multi-service provisioning platform) is very much what customers are interested in," said Tom Keenan, director of market management for Cisco's optical networking group. After all, he added, many customers are not interested in TDM-only solutions. They want a combination of new with the older stuff.

"We understand that the world is going to packet as an answer," Keenan added. "But we also know that they are going to traverse a variety of types of roads. Let's not mistake anything. There is a lot of SONET out there and there is a huge install base to consider."

SONET technology is considered the leader in the metro private line networking space, according to a recent report from research firm Frost and Sullivan. The report said service revenue from SONET is expected to grow to $2.25 billion by 2011.

is that enough to make the Metro Ethernet crowd a tad jealous? There's really no competition between the two protocols, said Nortel's Morin.

"While Metro Ethernet promises to be less expensive and more flexible than traditional SONET/SDH networks, SONET/SDH represents a tremendous installed base for service providers that cannot just be abandoned during the move to Metro Ethernet," Morin added. "That's why Nortel led the development and standardization of Resilient Packet Ring (RPR), which makes it possible for Ethernet to be very efficiently sent over service provider's existing optical (SONET/SDH) networks."

Morin claims Nortel was the first vendor to commercially deploy RPR-based technology in 1999 (with Bell Canada). It has since shipped over 44,000 RPR ports to customers around the world.

It all adds up to a bid to overcome the carriers' historical barriers to adoption of Metro Ethernet technologies.

"Ethernet has been the dominant technology in local enterprise networks for years due to its simplicity and cost-effectiveness," Morin noted. "But since it was developed for local enterprise networks, Ethernet has lacked critical requirements that would enable service providers to take advantage of its benefits in metro networks."

That also helps explain groups that hammer out Ethernet Standards. The goal is to standardize scalability, reliability and resiliency that various vendors are now rolling into their respective Ethernet product and service offerings -- which are key to bringing Ethernet up to the same level as SONET.

Determinism is also a critical element to the further adoption of Ethernet. Morin explained that in traditional Ethernet networks, information is sent through the network without first establishing the path it will travel. That is why Ethernet is often called a "connectionless" or "best-effort" technology.

While best effort might be sufficient for e-mail and Web browsing, it does not meet the stringent demands that voice and video require. Bringing determinism to Ethernet is seen by Nortel and others as a key to helping carriers to further adopt Ethernet. A deterministic approach to Ethernet sets up predetermined paths for Ethernet traffic.

"This makes Ethernet act much like SONET/SDH networks, but while keeping the cost-structure and simplicity of Ethernet," Morin said. "In Nortel's opinion, this was really the last big hurdle that has been holding up widespread adoption of Metro Ethernet."