When you think that the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) standardized 1 Gigabit Ethernet in 1997, and then in 2010 standardized 100 Gigabit Ethernet, a hundred-fold jump in data transfer speeds in the span of less than 14 years, it is nothing short of remarkable. Such is the nature of computer technology; the push to move bigger data at faster speeds drives the competitive and highly concentrated networking industry.
The latest in networking technology pulls back on the reins a bit with the introduction of intermediate speed Ethernet, designed to address data transfer speeds over 1 Gbps and less than 10 Gbps. The push to standardize 2.5 and 5 Gigabit Ethernet started last year and has begun to bear new products, namely high-end “multigigabit” Ethernet switches, which are almost ready to go to market.
Multigigabit Ethernet is a response to a faster 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard
In 2013, the IEEE introduced the next generation Wi-Fi, called 802.11ac, with quoted theoretical data transfer rates of 1.3 Gbps. That was a huge jump from the previous standard, 802.11n, capable of transferring data at a mere 300 Mbps.
Wireless is growing even faster. On the horizon is an informal addendum to the 801.11ac standard, the so-called Second Wave of 802.11ac, which boasts theoretical speeds at well over 3 Gbps. Manufacturers are developing chipsets that they say will accelerate wireless data transfers even further—up to 6.93 Gbps, according to Cisco product manager Chris Spain, one of the topic’s thought leaders.
Wireless APs capable of transfers faster than 1 Gbps are already on the consumer market—and they’re getting faster
802.11ac wireless access points capable of data transfers of more than 1 Gbps have been on the market for over two years already. You will notice when browsing through wireless APs that manufacturers quote transfer speeds from 1.2 Gbps to as high as 3.2 Gbps. If an AP retails for above $150, there’s a good chance it is quoting data transfers better than 1 Gpbs.
The 802.11ac Wave 2 products with speeds over 6 Gpbs are anticipated to come to market later this year.
Breaking the bottleneck of Cat 5e cable limitations
In many enterprise and medium-sized business networks, legacy Ethernet cables are Cat 5e, which top out at a 1 Gpbs data transfer rate. In order to gain the speed advantages of APs using 802.11ac, it requires ripping out a lot of cabling and replacing with new Cat 6 cables, which supports data transfers up to 10 Gbps.
Additionally, Cat 6 cables have a distance limitation of 100 meters; beyond that, transference speeds drop below 1 Gbps. Newer (and more expensive) Cat 6a cables, however, are capable of a longer reach.
Re-cabling large scale networks can be pricey in terms of man hours and cable costs, which is why companies like Cisco are developing switch hardware capable of accelerating faster data transfers, so that wireless APs can work at the top of their range on existing cable infrastructure over large networks with a lot of Cat 5e cables.
Multigigabit Ethernet switches are the solution
Since Cisco is at the forefront of this technology, naturally they are pushing for the IEEE standardization that will legitimize it. Cisco is fitting its high-end Catalyst Ethernet switches with intermediate Ethernet settings, which it says will be capable of pushing 2.5 Gbps across a Cat 5e cable, and 5 Gbps across Cat 6 cables.
With prices in the $3,000 range for a 48-port switch, Cisco Catalyst represents the top of the line for enterprise networking equipment, and are commonplace in medium to large network settings.
Are multigigabit Ethernet switches for you?
If your business does not already have an investment in Cisco gear, chances are your needs aren’t to the scale that requires this type of technology. The cabling infrastructure that needs to be in place to justify that level of expenditure are usually found in large data centers or campus settings.
This is not to say that your business will not benefit from 802.11ac Wi-Fi. As BYOD sees mainstream adoption, the need for fast, secure wireless access is paramount. For an SMB, hooking up a few hundred feet of Cat 6a between a several 802.11ac high speed APs and a network switch usually is a more appropriate solution for maximizing 801.11ac data transfer speeds.
Whether your switch has to have mutligigabit capabilities—that’s a different story.
“We are not hearing any requests for multigigabit switches currently from our customers,” says Peter Newton, a product manager with Netgear. “We expect that customers will adopt more affordable solutions than re-cabling their networks with a second run of Cat 5e or a single run of Cat 6 for 10 Gbps support.”
Whether or not multigigabit Ethernet fits your needs, the developments in Wave 2 of 802.11ac networking will be interesting to watch as 2015 progresses. The product launches surrounding 2.5 and 5 gigabit Ethernet technology will be a dominant story in computer networking for years to come.