Ethernet: Getting Faster, Getting Greener


With enterprises scrambling to find ways to cut energy costs, one less-obvious means may come in the form of Ethernet — that venerable, ubiquitous networking technology.

While already pervasive throughout the enterprise, Ethernet is continuing its march forward with new initiatives that could mean far faster connectivity for all network users while still being “green” — with greatly reduced power requirements.

“In a standard data network … you’re not worried about power savings,” Brad Booth, president of the Ethernet Alliance industry association, told “Pre-2008, we didn’t care how much power we used as long as we were able to communicate the data.”

But with today’s greater focus on power savings, networking vendors are caring how much power everything uses. That’s where an innovative use of an existing Ethernet standard comes into play.

As part of a student white paper challenge sponsored by the Ethernet Alliance, University of South Florida student Francisco Blanquicet came up with the concept of using the pause cycle in Ethernet to turn data flow on and off, thereby saving power.

“Originally, pause flow control was set up to prevent switches from swamping end nodes,” Booth said. “If you have a server or a desktop and it can’t handle the amount of data coming into it, Ethernet can pause the flow. When that standard was written people started using it, but then found it didn’t work with certain types of traffic very effectively.”

Booth described the pause flow control approach for reducing power as an interesting use of an existing technology. Since pause flow control is already part of the Ethernet standard, it can be readily implemented by vendors.

The approach could result in a 10 to 15 percent reduction in power, Booth estimated.

To drive even greater power reduction for Ethernet, the backers of the networking technology are also busy undertaking a new standards effort, Energy Efficient Ethernet. The goal of Energy Efficient Ethernet is to reduce Ethernet power consumption by 50 percent or more.

“One of the things they’re looking at is to actually shut down and literally, physically turn off the physical layer device for a period of time and allow the device to take the line quiet,” Booth said. “Then bring it up for a refresh every once in a while. By refreshing intermittently, it allows you to wake up quicker.”

Additionally, Booth said Ethernet’s supporters also examined reducing speeds from 10-gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) to 1GbE, based on network demand — though the results proved less than promising.

“What was discovered is that shifting speed actually took so long that you would notice the impact on your network and you could potentially lose packets,” he added.

10GbE itself also continues to evolve. At Interop this year, the Ethernet Alliance is demonstrating how 10GBASE-T can be transmitted over Cat6a cabling to a distance of 100 meters — nearly double the technology’s 55-meter transmission limit a year ago.

While 10GbE is currently the top speed for Ethernet, the race has already begun for 40GbE and 100GbE speeds, through the IEEE High Speed Ethernet effort, an initiative that Booth said had been incubated by the Ethernet Alliance.

[cob:Special_Report]Those pushes mark only some of the most visible efforts by the Ethernet Alliance, which spends much of its time between IEEE meetings to build consensus proposals.

“The big thing with the IEEE is building consensus, and the Ethernet Alliance is supporting that effort, making sure that consensus building is happening,” Booth said.

He added that Ethernet Alliance member are already talking about showing 40/100 GbE equipment in 2009.

With Ethernet getting greener and faster, there are still areas that may need improvement, however.

“Ethernet is a prevalent technology and it still spreading its wings into areas,” Booth said. “We have to sit down and honestly say to ourselves where can we improve the technology and make it better for next generation of datacenter and the Internet in general.”

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