The idea of extending an Ethernet connection from your building or campus to the Internet or another facility on the other side of the country might seem a bit odd at first. After all, the legacy telecom carriers have pretty much owned that space for over a century. That’s all changing fast. New competitive service providers are coming into the bandwidth marketplace without the history or traditions of using telco standards to define their networks. That frees them to take a “blank sheet” look at what a Wide Area Network (WAN) should be, how it should be priced and what services it should offer.
Let’s say, for the sake of discussion, that the WAN starts where the LAN leaves off. I know that there’s often something called the MAN or Metropolitan Area Network in-between. MAN and WAN technologies are more alike than different. It’s mostly a matter of scale. While the MAN tends to cover a city and perhaps suburbs, the WAN has no geographical limitation. WAN services can be regional, national or even international.
Now let’s consider Ethernet WAN connections. Ethernet is the packet switching protocol now nearly ubiquitous on Local Area Networks. It wasn’t always that way. Even a few decades ago, there were competing standards such as Token Ring. Ethernet has become so popular now that the economy of manufacturing scale makes it more economical to implement than other standards. Ethernet has taken over the LAN, but it is just starting to make inroads on the WAN. In the coming decades, we may see a repeat of Ethernet dominance for local, metropolitan and wide area networks.
The Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) has done the standardization work necessary to establish what’s known as Carrier Ethernet. This frees LAN Ethernet from its distance limitations so that it can connect from your building to the other side of the world. The MEF has also standardized Ethernet services so that the Ethernet you get from one carrier is the same as you get from another. This makes competitive bidding possible, driving down the cost for the buyer. It also enables carriers to extend their service footprint by interconnecting with other carriers through Ethernet Network to Network Interfaces (E-NNI).
WAN Ethernet has some definite advantages over the legacy telecom services we’re used to. First is the interface. If you want to connect to a T1 line or DS3 service, you need a specialized piece of equipment or a very specific plug-in module for your router. You can’t just take an Ethernet patch cord and connect your edge router to the carrier’s “smart jack.” The protocols are completely different. However, you can do exactly that with an Ethernet connection. Most often the carrier provides a common RJ-45 jack or a managed router that you simply patch into.
Second is services. You can order Ethernet Line Service to mimic the point to point or last mile dedicated Internet connections that you have with T1 or DS3. You can also order Ethernet LAN service. That’s a multipoint networking service that ties together multiple business locations. You don’t need to mess around with running individual private lines to each location. They all connect through the Ethernet LAN service.
Unlike T-Carrier and SONET services, Ethernet is highly scalable. In other words, you can get a wide range of bandwidths delivered to your installed Ethernet port. That will prove valuable if business suddenly increases and you need to increase your WAN bandwidth to handle the traffic. A change in bandwidth level can often be handled with a telephone call to your provider, with no need wait for equipment to be replaced.
Finally, Ethernet WAN connections have a cost advantage. It’s not uncommon to get twice the bandwidth for the same price as a T1 line. At higher speeds, the cost savings is even more dramatic.
You owe it yourself to at least compare services and pricing for Ethernet WAN connections to what you have now to see if you may be missing out on cost and performance benefits. Ethernet WAN is available over both twisted pair copper and fiber optic cabling.