Ethernet goes beyond the desktop

10 Gig standard threatens ATM networking market

Force 3 Inc., led by Trevia Martin, Gary Brown and Wes Osborne, installed the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in June.

(Photo by Greg Dohler)

When the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington cut the ribbon on its new data network in June, the center became the first U.S. Army medical system to use the newly ratified 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard.

Installed by network integrator Force 3 Inc., the backbone replaces Walter Reed's previous asynchronous transfer mode network, which was slowing down under the weight of 6,000 users, said Trevia Martin, Force 3's vice president of operations who oversaw the installation. Large, bandwidth-intensive data files, such as 60-megabyte X-ray scans, were increasingly being transmitted.

Also, the hospital needed to prepare for remote medicine, where other hospitals would share these files. So it requested a campuswide network that could carry 32 gigabits per second at its core and would use the 10 Gigabit Ethernet protocol to carry the traffic.

For the Crofton, Md.-based Force 3, this $5.5 million project may be a precursor for similar work. To date, the company, which has approximately 160 employees, has re-engineered the networks at more than 135 medical treatment facilities worldwide, including Defense Department facilities such as Brooke Army Medical Center in Fort Sam, Houston.

About 95 percent of the company's $130 million to $140 million annual revenue is government related, and approximately 60 percent to 65 percent of that work is Defense Department medical work, said Gary Brown, senior vice president of sales for Force 3.

Curiosity about using 10 Gigabit is growing among government customers, according to Joyce Kerridge of Foundry Networks Inc., which provided equipment and support for the Walter Reed project. Other Army facilities, such as Fort Polk, Fort Riley, Fort Belvoir and Fort McPherson, are undergoing similar campuswide network installations.

"They are starting now to look where 10 Gig will play," said Kerridge, who is director of Army programs for the San Jose, Calif.-based Foundry.

"In many ways, ATM is becoming yesterday's technology," said Warren Suss, president of federal IT consulting firm Suss Consulting in Jenkintown, Pa. "Major government agencies that have been riding ATM for a while are now looking elsewhere. There is certainly a greater receptivity to Gigabit Ethernet."

How 10 Gig saves

Part of the interest in 10 Gigabit Ethernet stems from the ratification of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard, the IEEE 802.3ae, set June 17 by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Ethernet has long been used in local area networks within office buildings. However, the greater capacity of 10 Gigabit Ethernet equipment allows use in backbones for larger metropolitan area networks ? data networks spanning locations across a city, military base or campus ? and even wide area networks that bridge offices in far-flung locations.

Proponents see 10 Gigabit Ethernet as a less expensive, simpler alternative to services now used for these MANs and WANs, services such as ATM and synchronous optical network, or SONET.

Michael Kennedy, co-founder of network consultants Network Strategy Partners LLC of Boston, estimates that an optical-based Ethernet installation can cut by half the capital and operating costs required by a SONET or an integrated services digital network, known as ISDN.

"Traditional data services are expensive to scale, limited and inflexible in their service options, operationally complex and painfully slow to upgrade," Kennedy said in a paper the company had prepared for the Metro Ethernet Forum, a coalition of Ethernet service and equipment providers.

"Most enterprise IT managers find themselves either overprovisioning because they can afford to pay for the insurance or underprovisioning because they cannot," Kennedy said.

For instance, small organizations that need wide area networks might be limited to one or multiple T1 lines offering 1.5-megabit throughput, or to T3 lines, which provide 45 megabits. In contrast, service providers can offer Gigabit Ethernet in 1 megabit increments, Kennedy said.

As a result, there is "a real sweet spot" for network providers to offer services in between increments of T1 and T3, said Larry Paulhus, director of product manger for carrier-grade Ethernet equipment vendor Hatteras Networks Inc., Research Triangle Park, N.C.

On the capital side, Gigabit Ethernet eliminates the need to purchase telecom equipment, Kennedy said. An organization installing a digital transmission rate 3 line, or DS3, may pay up to $15,000 for additional routers, cards and software to connect to the telecom provider. An Ethernet connection can be made from an existing 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch, he said.

On the operating side, Gigabit Ethernet can provide savings as well. Work that used to require the help of telecom trained personnel can now be handled by those with a network administration background, said Marshall Eisenberg, director of product marketing for Foundry.

The protocol also simplifies the network. Most corporate Internet traffic today originates and terminates on Ethernet, Paulhus said. Eliminating extra protocol conversions in transmission cuts possible trouble.

This simplification will become particularly useful as more Gigabit Ethernet is deployed in the office environment, and users become accustomed to more bandwidth, said Roger Billings, president of Ethernet equipment provider Wideband Corp., Gallatin, Mo.

For instance, desktop Gigabit provides the bandwidth needed for running applications, such as spreadsheets, from servers rather than from desktop computers. Organizations looking to reduce licensing costs of software may find they can purchase fewer copies by having users check out software over a network.

Storage management may also drive Gigabit Ethernet installations, said Bill Peldzus, marketing manager for the consulting arm of storage media manufacturer Imation Corp., Oakdale, Minn.

Gigabit Ethernet can facilitate the adoption of another emerging technology, the Internet Small Computer System Interface, or iSCSI. iSCSI is a way of using Internet protocol to run storage area networks that eliminate the need for separate Fibre Channel networks. Gigabit Ethernet provides the capacity needed to run this new technology alongside regular traffic on the same network.

The technology also provides a foundation for shifting telephone services over to the Internet-based protocol, allowing organizations to put both their voice and data traffic on one local area network. Force 3's Brown estimates that agencies switching their phone services over to VOIP will see a return of investment in 18 to 24 months.

"I believe more government agencies will look toward converged networks," said Brown. "10 Gig will certainly provide the bandwidth to accomplish that, and the savings will be significant."

Hold the phone

Not everyone is convinced, however. David Lease, the chief architect officer for Wam!Net Inc., Eagan, Minn., a managed network and content services provider, has taken a wait-and-see attitude. Wam!Net is installing and maintaining networks for Navy bases as part of the $6.9 billion Navy-Marine Corps Intranet project under prime contractor Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas.

"We may play with [10 Gigabit Ethernet] in the lab, but I'm not ready to put it to the customer 24x7," Lease said. "The standard is new. The technologies need to mature some more. I'm not going to be the first one out of the gate, because I don't want to suffer the pain for my customers."

Another limitation with the new standard is that available equipment remains costly, said James Southworth, chief technical officer of the network consulting firm East By North Inc., Centreville, Va.

"The 10 Gigabit Ethernet equipment that is out there now almost approaches prices for SONET equipment," Southworth said.

Despite these drawbacks, however, providers such as Force 3 are ready to offer 10 Gig solutions.

The Walter Reed installation "definitely was a challenge because of its magnitude," said Martin. However, Force 3, along with Foundry, found that it could work out the kinks through in-house configuration and testing and still offer a price competitive to ATM.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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