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New IEEE network standards nudge data centers toward 25 GbE

Two new IEEE network standards that will accommodate 25 GbE are 802.3bq and 802.3by. But what changes will you need to make in the data center to support them?

As user and data volumes increase in the enterprise, network bandwidth needs to keep pace.

The last few years have seen a move from 1 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) to 10 GbE, but even faster standards were ratified in July 2016, and will soon have an impact on data center networks. Let's take a closer look at the newest Ethernet standards, and consider their implications for data center architects.

Q. What are the new IEEE network standards and what do they entail?

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) has ratified four new standards for 802.3 Ethernet: IEEE 802.3bp, IEEE 802.3bq, IEEE 802.3br and IEEE 802.3by.

As businesses fill existing 10 GbE pipes, it's only natural to look ahead and consider the ways that 25 GbE can open new workload and data storage opportunities.

The two standards of most interest to data center professionals are 802.3bq and 802.3by. Both amendments update Ethernet standards to accommodate 25 GbE -- that's 25 times the bandwidth of 1 GbE and 2.5 times the bandwidth of 10 GbE. Specifically, 802.3bq addresses the physical layer and management for 25 Gbps and 40 Gbps, while 802.3by outlines the media access control parameters for 25 Gbps. Combined, these standards cover the necessary signaling and protocols needed to create common interoperable 25 GbE devices.

The 25 Gigabit Ethernet Consortium first pushed the new level in 2014, and vendors such as Broadcom, Arista and Cisco have produced 25 Gbps-capable products since then. However, the ratification of these amendments through a global standards body like the IEEE ensures a common implementation and prevents interoperability problems of 25 GbE.

Q. Where do these new IEEE network standards have the greatest impact on data centers?

The development of 25 GbE can potentially lower the costs of high-bandwidth deployments by simplifying the underlying chips, ports and cabling requirements. This could also help eliminate the cost and complexity that have muted the adoption of other high-bandwidth implementations, such as 40 GbE and 100 GbE, which are both based on multiple 10 GbE channels.

As businesses fill existing 10 GbE pipes, it's only natural to look ahead and consider the ways that 25 GbE can open new workload and data storage opportunities. It's the cloud-scale and service provider companies that will likely adopt 25 GbE first, but a cost-effective, hardware-level implementation will probably drive other enterprises to evaluate and deploy 25 GbE.

Old guidelines for 10 GbE still impact today's data center

The current standard 100 GbE was first established in 2010. The adoption of slower standards may seem counterintuitive, but the 100 GbE standard is constructed from 10 GbE channels, or lanes. The move to 25 GbE not only offers a faster alternative to 10 GbE, but can potentially simplify the implementation of faster bandwidth standards.

An everyday business with a small data center struggling to maximize a 10 GbE backbone probably won't jump to 25 GbE right away.

But 10 GbE adoption is hardly trivial, and it's growing. Back in 2014, Intel market research reported that 80% of respondents either deployed or planned to deploy 10 GbE. The interest in 10 GbE can largely be seen as a response to the burgeoning use of virtualization, where a great many virtual machines are passing greater volumes of data-rich traffic across the network. In an age where application performance and a quality user experience are key business metrics, adequate network bandwidth, performance and cost are critical considerations for an enterprise.

Q. How do you implement these new IEEE network standards in the data center?

A move to 25 GbE will require the deployment of new network hardware. At a minimum, servers not already equipped with 25 GbE ports will need to be fitted with a suitable 25 GbE network interface card (NIC). Expect NICs to support major operating systems and provide suitable drivers.

But more significant expense and disruption may come when upgrading other network devices, such as switches, routers and Ethernet storage equipment to 25 GbE equivalents. Some switch products may employ 25 GbE inter-switch backbone connectivity -- leaving 1 GbE and 10 GbE ports to individual server NICs -- though 25 GbE switches will likely incorporate 25 GbE at all ports.

The trick with a NIC switch and other network devices is to ensure that your product choices are fully compliant and interoperable with the newly ratified IEEE 802.3bq and 802.3by standards to ensure compatibility and avoid vendor lock-in issues.

And don't forget the cabling. The 25 GbE ports will also demand updated Ethernet cables to make the connections. Review your data center's current cabling scheme and plan upgrades as needed to interconnect new ports.

Beyond the hardware requirements, however, enterprise data center leaders will need to consider how they will use the additional network bandwidth. The move to 25 GbE will undoubtedly change how admins provision and manage networks, and how they allocate workloads to servers. For example, previous provisioning or migration schemes that accounted for limited network bandwidth may become moot, allowing the faster bandwidth to accommodate many more workloads and change migration planning.

Ultimate adoption of 25 GbE will depend on cost-effective vendor offerings, coupled with careful evaluations and pilot projects. The move to 25 GbE certainly adds a new tool to the network architect's toolbox, but it remains to be seen how quickly that new Ethernet standard will move to production environments under these new IEEE network standards.

Next Steps

Severs advance thanks to 25 GbE speeds

HPE's rolls out first 25 GbE open switch

Hungry hyperscale data centers fed by Arista 25 GbE switches

This was last published in August 2016

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What changes would need to be made in your data center to support 25 GbE?
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You say "data center leaders will need to consider how they will use the additional network bandwidth. The move to 25 GbE will undoubtedly change how admins provision and manage networks."
The 2550100 Alliance has a few common sense guidelines from our collaboration and testing at SolutionFests:
- Configure 1 Gb of bandwidth per core
- Configure 1Gb of bandwidth per VM
- Configure 25GbE with any server with Broadwell processors because they can over-run 10GbE links.
- We see virtual networking with vSwitches, not so much with vNICs. Partitioning of NICs was unnecessary at 1GbE, optional at 10GbE---but should be considered mandatory at 25, 50 and 100GbE. New best practice should be to offload vSwitch as much as possible with NIC-based partitioning, which also enables QoS on a per-VM basis.
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