The future's bright for 10GB switches!

Geoff Day, Technical Manager at CMS plc.

Geoff Day, Technical Manager of CMS plc walks through the evolution of 10GBase-T technology developments, the impact on small to medium size businesses, and the predicted market trends for 10GB switches.

It’s hard to believe that the original 10Gbe standard (802.3ae) was ratified eleven years ago. This standard was developed to update the preceding IEEE803.2 standard for 10Gb fibre transmission. At this point large enterprises were the early adopters of this technology, as they already had significant experience of fibre connectivity and were able to justify the price of the hardware against the business needs of uptime, redundancy and speed. For the small to medium size business however the technology was generally unattainable as the price was prohibitive. Fast forward to 2006 which saw the IEEE802.3an standard ratified, enabling 10GBase-T to be deployed using twisted pair copper cabling, you would have expected a significant uptake in the use of 10GB copper switching technology as a result, but it didn’t happen. It’s only now that we are starting to see a dramatic increase in the uptake of 10GB switches and all the predictions indicate that there will be a seismic increase in its deployment in the next few years, across businesses of all sizes.

To understand this a little more, we need to examine the drivers behind the use of 10GBase-T technology.

Driver 1: 10Gigabit Ethernet and the server edge

Many medium size organisations are optimising their server rooms and data centres by consolidating servers to free up NG-GS716T_NG-GS724T_Switchesspace, power and management overhead. This usually involves consolidating applications and eliminating the old “one application per server” convention and often the next step is server virtualisation. Server virtualisation supports numerous applications and operating systems on a single server by defining multiple virtual machines (VMs) on the server. Each virtual machine operates on a standalone basis yet shares the server processing power, ensuring no processing power is wasted. However server virtualisation is heavily dependent on networking and storage and require more storage than one physical server can provide. Network attached storage (NAS) and storage area networks (SANs) can provide additional storage for virtual machines but connection speeds are critical to avoid delays. 10Gbe provides ten times the speed of conventional connectivity for virtualised environments.

Driver 2: 10Gigabit Ethernet SAN versus Fibre Channel

There are three types of storage in a network: Direct attached storage (DAS), Network attached storage (NAS) and NG-FS105_NG-FS108_Desktop SwitchesStorage area networks (SANs). SANS have emerged as the most flexible and scalable solution for data centres and high density computing applications, but the main drawback to SANs has been the cost and complexity of installing and maintaining the fibre channel. It is for this reason that the use of SANs has largely been confined to large enterprises.

The introduction of a new standard the Internet Small Computer System Interface (iSCSI) is now making 10GBe an attractive alternative for SAN applications. The latest iSCSI capabilities allow 10Gigabit Ethernet to compare very favourably with the SAN interconnect with the added advantage that it can be run over the existing copper cabling infrastructure. The advent of the iSCSI standard offers businesses a number of advantages in the form of:

  • Reduced equipment and management costs: 10GbE networking components cost less than fibre channel components and require less specialised skills for installation and management
  • Enhanced server management: the iSCSI standard enables servers to boot from an operating system image on the NAS, eliminating the need to boot each server from its own direct attached disc
  • Improved disaster recovery: all information on a local NAS can be duplicated on a remote NAS for fast and efficient disaster recovery

Excellent performance: even transactional virtual machines, such as databases can run over 10Gigabit Ethernet and iSCSI storage.

Driver 3:10Gigabit Ethernet and the aggregation layer

Until very recently network design best practices recommended equipping the edge with Fast Ethernet (10/100) and Switchesusing Gigabit uplinks to either the core (for 2-tiered networks) or distribution layer (for 3 tiered networks) Today, traffic at the edge of the network has increased  exponentially as applications have multiplied and the price point for Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop makes has resulted in significantly higher adoption rates and this has increased the oversubscription ratios of the rest of the network. This has resulted in a bottleneck between large amounts of Gigabit traffic at the edge of the network and the aggregation layer or core, which are still traditionally running on GB switches.

10 Gigabit allows the aggregation layer to scale to meet the increasing demands of users and applications. It can help to bring oversubscriptions ratios back in line with network design best practices and provides some important advantages over aggregating multiple Gigabit Ethernet links;

  • Less fibre or copper usage: a 10 Gigabit Ethernet link uses fewer physical links compared with Gigabit Ethernet aggregation, which uses one link per Gigabit Ethernet link. Using 10 Gigabit Ethernet reduces cabling complexity and uses existing cable efficiently, whilst massively improving the network performance of those links.
  • Greater support for large streams: traffic over aggregated 1 Gigabit Ethernet Links can be limited to 1 Gbps streams because of packet sequencing requirements on end devices. 10 Gigabit Ethernet can more effectively support applications that generate multi Gigabit streams due to the greater capacity in a single 10 Gigabit Ethernet link.
  • Longer development times: 10 Gigabit Ethernet provides greater scalability than multiple Gigabit Ethernet links, resulting in a more future proof network. Up to eight 10 Gigabit Ethernet links can be aggregated into a virtual 80- Gbps connection

It is clearly evident from these 3 key drivers that there are some very compelling reasons for business users to deploy the 10GBase-T technology using copper cabling and switches, yet there has still historically been a reluctance to adopt the technology outside of large enterprises.  The reasons for this are multi-fold and some of the key reasons were:

  • Price Point.  The price point for the first generation of 10GB switches was still regarded as prohibitive by small and medium sized businesses
  • Power consumption: Again first generation 10GB copper switches were power-hungry and this was a concern to network managers, particularly in date centre environments where power consumption is critical and costly
  • Latency:  Network managers were concerned that the latency using copper solutions compared unfavourably with fibre and may prove problematic.
  • Lack of knowledge of business network speed and capacity: Many business users were unaware of the load on their network and didn’t, therefore, perceive a need to upgrade

So if we sum up the situation in a nutshell: the 10GBase-T standard offers numerous advantages to users but they are not adopting the technology because the hardware has been considered too expensive and not sufficiently efficient. In order for the situation to change and for mainstream adoption in the marketplace, the switch manufacturers needed to address these issues and remove the barriers.

And that is exactly what has happened. The switch manufacturers have knuckled down to tackle these issues and remove the barriers to entry for SME’s. In January this year NETGEAR™ announced the industry’s first affordable 10Gigabit Ethernet switch for small and medium sized businesses (and any network supporting less than 500 users) with a price point of less than £1000 for 10Gbe switching. Pricing for 10GB switches has reduced by up to 60%. This removal of the biggest barrier to entry means a paradigm shift for users. They can now consider 10Gbase-T as their standard platform. They can also look at consolidating their switch requirements, removing the need for multiple Gigabit switches and potentially saving money into the bargain.

Whilst price was the biggest hurdle, there have been other developments in switch technology. New model switches have much lower power consumption than their predecessors and 10Gbase-T copper latency figures are typically between 3 and 4 microseconds, compared with 1 to 12 for 1Gbe, making it viable for the majority of non-critical applications

Market Trends and predictions for 10GB switches

So now that the technology and pricing issues have been addressed, how will this affect the adoption of 10GB switches in the marketplace?

Well, dramatically is the answer. 2013 is purported to be the year 10GBase-T finally takes off. Industry research conducted by Crehan Research predicts forty-fold increase in 10GB shipments over the next five years. They also predict that 2014 will be the tipping point where the majority of switches shipped will have 10Gbe ports.

So as the market is poised for mainstream adoption of 10GB switches, the future looks bright. Small and medium size businesses can enjoy all the benefits of the technology and deploy them into their networks confident they are future-proofing their infrastructure to cope with the ever increasing demands on them. Additionally as the volumes of 10GB switches manufactured and shipped increases, we can expect prices to continue to reduce over time.

What’s not to like about 10GBase-T technology?