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10 GigE -- Cable's 'next big thing'

The data center industry is abuzz about 10 Gigabit Ethernet cabling. But many IT managers still have questions about what it is, why it's better than what they have now and where 10 GigE can take them.

For those pondering what's next in data center cabling, the answer's simple. In data center discussions coast to coast, 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GigE) is the cable on the tips of everyone's tongues.

And while there are still a large number of data centers chugging along on a gigabit, those days appear to be coming to an end sooner than many realize.

But for all the buzz surrounding 10 GigE in the data center space, it still suffers from many of the same perception problems that have been plaguing IT cabling for decades.

Even the people who know what wires are actually powering their server farm often don't know how important their cabling is, and what kinds of cabling they'll need to keep up with emerging technologies that will hit the market in the next 10 years.

For those still wondering, 10 GigE is cabling technology that uses optical fiber and offers data speeds up to 10 billion bits per second. Built on Ethernet technology used in most LANs, 10 GigE is described as a "disruptive" technology that offers a more efficient and less expensive approach to moving data on backbone connections between networks, while also providing a consistent technology end-to-end. By utilizing optical fiber, GigE can replace existing networks that use Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) switches and Synchronous Optical Network multiplexers on an OC-48 Sonet ring with a simpler network of 10GbE switches.

Ten GigE interconnects LANs, wide area networks (WANs) and metropolitan area networks (MANs), and uses IEEE 802.3 Ethernet media access control protocol, as well as its frame format and size.

By using full-duplex transmission it can stretch pretty far -- distances up to 300 meters on multi-mode fiber and up to 40 kilometers on single mode fiber.

So why is 10 GigE the next big thing? According to Carrie Higbie, the global network applications market manager for The Siemon Co., Watertown, Conn., its ability to increase storage capacity and move large chunks of data has helped the technology jump to the front of the line.

"In order to move huge files you have to have throughput to do that," Higbie said. "Whatever a company spends for any hour a day spent waiting on computing [power] is like paying an hour for that employee to do nothing. The more throughput you have equals greater productivity and better redundancy."

That increased flexibility offered by vastly improved cabling technology is why Higbie sees 10 GigE as the wave of the present for any data center in charge of supporting a large enterprise, especially those building brand new server farms.

"Almost any new data center being built is being cabled for 10 GigE...and for [existing data centers] whether this year or next year, they expect to do it within 10 years," Higbie said.

But Nashua, N.H.-based Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff sees issues with widespread adoption of 10 GigE at the present time. To harness the power of 10 GigE, he said, companies must deploy remote direct memory access (RDMA) to bypass the TCP/IP stack, which reduces overhead that is taxed when using 10 GigE, because the CPU has to work overtime running software.

Haff also said many IT managers are waiting to see how standards efforts, which are ongoing but have yet to be fully formalized, play out.

And for server farms still using copper cabling, 10 GigE upgrades are a complicated matter because 10 GigE is an optical fiber, and how standards for that transition will be worded has yet to be decided.

"People are not really going to it in quantity. It's just starting to roll out," Haff said. "One of the issues is going to be cabling, at least initially. The thing with 10 GigE is that it's not a drop-in replacement for 1GigE for the most part."

Higbie, who consults regularly with IT managers exploring new data center technology, said she doesn't always recommend 10 GigE to small to midsized business (SMB) clients, as least not right now. According to Higbie, many SMBs do not have processing needs large enough to dictate an upgrade to 10 GigE. And if they don't plan to stay in their building for more than five years, Higbie said she often tells them to hold off until they move into their new facility.

And those for whom Higbie recommends immediate adoption, she said examining their cable plant is the first order of business.

"They have to determine how healthy cable plant is," Higbie said. "Most companies don't know how healthy they are."

But while many companies are still in the exploratory stage as far as 10 GigE is concerned, there are already plans to upgrade to as much as 40 GigE in the future. But 40 GigE is little more than a "pie in the sky" concept right now, and Higbie doesn't anticipate a general call of interest to take place until at least the end of the decade.

For now, 10 GigE is still the future of data center cabling. And for those in the know, it's quite the topic of discussion.

"When you go to data center shows and talk to user groups, everyone's talking about 10 GigE," Higbie said. "It's the buzz on the street."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Luke Meredith, News Writer

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