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Power over Ethernet moves from the phone to the data center

Power over Ethernet is being driven by VoIP, and it's cropping up in networking gear in the data center. Standards regarding how much power can be delivered to devices using PoE are currently being developed.

Power over Ethernet (PoE) continues to grow, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is the single biggest market driver, but the technology is pushing into the data center.

PoE allows electrical current to travel through Ethernet local area networks (LAN) to devices via a data cable. This results in not having to hook up devices to power cords and can save companies additional wiring infrastructure and electrician costs.

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Mike Flaum, product marketing manager, Ethernet switching, Nortel Networks, said users can begin to build a converged network by integrating PoE. He said it is inevitable, and that businesses are heading that way.

Chris Ferski, director of IT for Minneapolis-based Goldsmith-Agio-Helms, agreed. "Everybody is moving in that direction," Ferski said. He cites the ability to save money and the market creating telephony products geared toward "converged enterprises," as reasons to upgrade to PoE.

Ferski views his IT and telecom infrastructure as a convergence, and he points to his company's use of software phones as an example. His company is an investment banking firm and employees can utilize these phones when traveling or working from home.

A major benefit for IT professionals is that PoE deployment is easily integrated into the network. Brad Sandt, lead network engineer, Park Hill School District in Kansas City, Mo., said he decided to invest in PoE after he saw the potential of VoIP, and the fact he didn't have to install the traditional AC power cords and wiring infrastructure. Sandt is in the middle of 1,100 phone rollout in 18 buildings.

"I couldn't imagine doing it without [PoE], Sandt stated. "All you have to do is plug the phone into the jack into the wall and make sure it's plugged into a powered switch on the other side, and you are ready to go."

More than phones

Beyond VoIP phones, there are several other applications for PoE, including wireless access points and security cameras. But in the data center, network switch equipment is the No. 1 PoE concern.

Cisco Systems Inc., Nortel, 3Com Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., Foundry Networks Inc., F5 Networks Inc., Force 10 Networks Inc., GarrettCom Inc. and PowerDesine all manufacture PoE switch hardware.

One issue data center pros will have to deal with when considering PoE is cost. Typically, such products are 10% to 20% more per port than standard Ethernet products. However, with the ability to save on cabling infrastructure and telephony costs with VoIP integration, the return on investment (ROI) argument can be made to upper management.

"Most CIOs and CFOs see it as a slight premium that is worth it," said Robert Whiteley, senior analyst, Enterprise Networking, Forrester Research. PoE switches typically have a five-to-seven year lifespan.

As PoE switches can draw more power, another consideration for engineers is to assess their uninterruptible power supply (UPS) loads with the new switches calculated in the power budget so as to ensure they won't go over the limits during outages.

"They might have a power budget, and as soon as they implement PoE, they exceed their current or budget," explained Fred Weiller, senior product manager, Cisco Catalyst Switching Marketing.

A possible future issue for PoE is the ability to power larger devices. Today's 802.3af IEEE power standard allows up to 15.4W, but vendors and end users would like to see the maximum wattage capacity increase. For example, a VoIP phone may be able to run under the present power standard, but to power a kiosk, that may take 25W.

Although 802.3af is just a little over three years old, a new standard, 802.3at, has been proposed. Some say this new standard could be passed by next year, and vendors are creating products that could be utilized at higher power standards. IT professionals are watching to see what happens next.

Carrie Higbie, global network applications market manager at Watertown, Conn.-based Siemon and president of the Blade Systems Alliance believes VoIP will continue to be the No. 1 application in the future. She said that even if the proposed 802.3at standard is passed, it will be able to add some power to devices that cannot be operated today, such as heavier security cameras, but that the demand for VoIP will continue to be the market driver.

Higbie has also been working with Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA)/ISO as they study the effects of what the 802.3at standard would do to the data center. She said it is too early to really know what types of challenges the data center would face. "There is a lot of stuff to be ironed out," Higbie stated.

She is optimistic about the future of PoE and notes that vendors are refining switches and believes this innovation is cause for the market to continue to grow. However, she said there is not an expectation that there will be drastic change in terms of powering bigger devices.

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