Expanding Ethernet

IEEE works to refine the next generation of wired connectivity

21 January 2013

Since it was first published in 1985, the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standard has transformed the way we work and play. Ethernet has made possible the networking of, among other things, PCs, smartphones, and tablets, as well as live and streaming video and optical transceivers. Technically speaking, the standard defines the physical and media access control layers for Ethernet communications across different wired devices.

IEEE 802.3 technologies are found everywhere, and its networks are the most dominant in use today. A significant portion of the Internet infrastructure is, for example, built on Ethernet-based bridges, switches, and routers. Ethernet also supports many different media types.

The IEEE Standards Association updated the 802.3 standard in September to incorporate technical enhancements and consolidate a host of amendments made since the base standard’s last full revision in 2008. Accordingly, IEEE 802.3-2012 addresses new markets and applications such as energy efficiency, in-car networking, data-center networking, and content delivery. The standard also addresses rates of 40 and 100 gigabit Ethernet (GbE) for compatibility with already installed IEEE 802.3 interfaces.

“IEEE 802.3’s relevance is being expanded in terms of bandwidth speeds and connection media,” says IEEE Senior Member Wael William Diab, vice chair of the working group and chair of the IEEE 802.3 revision task force. “Work is already under way on a variety of fronts that will have a dramatic impact on the next generations of our protocol.”

More and more people around the world are using e-readers, Internet-enabled televisions, and similar machines, each supporting ever-faster speeds. To assess the impact of the aggregation of data on bandwidth capacity needs, the IEEE 802.3 Industry Connections Bandwidth Assessment Ad Hoc group was formed. In 2011 the group gathered information from individuals throughout the industry globally, including data center networks, financial markets, cable operators, Internet exchanges, and the scientific community. Its report was released in July.

“The effects of the aggregate of data will be felt throughout the target areas that the IEEE 802.3 Working Group develops solutions to support,” says IEEE Member John D’Ambrosia, chair of the IEEE 802.3 Industry Connections Bandwidth Assessment Ad Hoc committee.

Globally, the number of Internet users is forecast to increase to 3 billion in 2015 (from 1.9 billion in 2010), according to the report. But those figures tell only part of the story, because nowadays many people own several Internet-enabled tools. For example, someone might listen to music on a smartphone while using a tablet to surf the Web. Different applications, of course, generate different amounts of traffic. Taking such multiple uses into account, the report forecasts that in 2015 there will be nearly 15 billion fixed and mobile-networked devices and machine-to-machine connections.

The use of broadband devices affects bandwidth in many ways. The report predicts that global IP traffic will have grown fourfold from 2010 to 2015, from 20 exabytes per month to 81 exabytes per month. (An exabyte is 1 quintillion bytes.) Mobile data traffic will have grown by 92 percent between 2010 and 2015, fixed/wired by 24 percent, and fixed/Wi-Fi by 39 percent, the report says. The forecasts show that the Ethernet will by 2015 need to reach a level 100 times the bandwidth required in 2010.

Perhaps the most important factor, according to the report, is “the ability of the Ethernet community to keep the cost per bit falling with time in such a way that the exponential rise in traffic does not result in unsupportable costs.” This cost ultimately limits the ability to deliver the bandwidth needed to satisfy the various applications, which influences these applications’ impact on bandwidth growth.

The Next Rate
To help build consensus among the stakeholders who deal with bandwidth assessment, another group, the IEEE 802.3 Industry Connections Higher Speed Ethernet Consensus Ad Hoc, was formed in August. The group was chartered with building consensus toward the next rate of Ethernet. According to D’Ambrosia, who is chairing the group, the stakeholders agree that 400 GbE should be the next rate of Ethernet to be developed.  Based on the consensus within the Ad Hoc, D’Ambrosia has requested a call for interest (CFI) to form a 400GbE study group. The CFI and formation of the subsequent study group would entail the initial steps that need to be taken to start defining the next rate of Ethernet.

“This speed is the next logical step and takes into consideration cost and economic factors,” D’Ambrosia says. “The consensus group’s feeling is that 400 GbE is the correct speed.” The study is expected to be completed in March, he says.

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