Monday, June 10, 2013

CloudEthernet Forum Ensures Ethernet Will Dominate

After 40 years you’d think that Ethernet pretty much owns the network space. You’d be right. Token Ring...gone. Token Bus...gone. Fibre Channel... not so fast. SONET... alive and well. T-Carrier...still going strong. It’s not an Ethernet world yet, but it will be if some disrupting technology like, say, the cloud doesn’t spoil the party.

Cloud communications services for your business.This is the impetus to the formation of a new industry standards group called CloudEthernet Forum. Founded just last month, this spinoff of the highly successful Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) looks to “address the need for scaling and enhancing Ethernet technology to meet the stringent demands of delivering cloud services.”

What’s threatening to derail Ethernet-everything is something that Bob Metcalfe couldn’t have foreseen back in the 70’s. It’s the massive expansion of networks from hundreds to thousands to millions to billions of machines all talking at the same time. In the case of virtual machines, they are all talking within the same data center. The rise of the “Internet of Things” is only making this situation worse. Pretty soon everything manufactured will have intelligence, even if it is subtly hidden from view.

The old collision domain Ethernet protocol has long given way to a collision-free topology implemented with switches and routers. This eliminated the throughput degradation caused by all those crashing packets and had the additional advantage of doubling network capacity in full duplex mode. Physical layer Ethernet has evolved from thick coaxial cables to unshielded twisted pair telephone-type wiring to fiber optic strands. The next desperately needed improvement was allowing Ethernet to escape from the LAN into the MAN and the WAN.

This is where the Metro Ethernet Forum came into being. The MEF is an industry standards group comprised of over 200 stakeholders including telecommunications service providers, cable MSO’s, network equipment manufacturers, software developers, semiconductor producers and testing companies. Their 10 year mission has been to extend the Ethernet standards to get past the distance limitations needed to extend Ethernet outside the building or campus. They’ve been so successful that Carrier Ethernet services are now common in Metropolitan Area Networks, nationwide fiber optic networks and worldwide communications. The E-NNI or Ethernet Network to Network Interface ensures that carriers can seamlessly exchange traffic, expanding the service footprints of all participants.

What’s been good for the MAN and WAN is surely good in the cloud, where multi-tenant data centers are rapidly replacing in-house server racks. While it’s possible to build a small cloud with a few racks of equipment, what’s really happening is the building of exponentially larger data centers that need to be located near available sources of power to ensure that they can get the electricity they need to operate. These secure facilities house thousands upon thousands of physical servers that morph into millions and millions of virtual machines. Start of the art Ethernet networks are in danger of straining under the new loads.

What sort of improvements does the CloudEthernet Forum expect to make? VLAN scaling, past the current 4,096 VLAN number limit is on the list. The forum intends to recommend enhancements to minimize the effort required to setup and operate virtual machines. They’ll also work on increasing layer 2 performance that can be degraded by broadcast multicast and unicast traffic. Another initiative will be to support cloud storage requiring connections that are highly resilient with extremely low latency. The big plan is to enable millions of virtual servers and storage devices to work effectively over regional and global networks.

The initial members of the CloudEthernet Forum include Alcatel-Lucent, Verizon, Tata Communications, Spirent, PCCW, Juniper Networks, HP, Equinix and Avaya. This august group will no doubt be expanding soon as standards work gets underway.

What can we expect from Ethernet in the future? Right now the switchover from telecom-based standards such as T1, DS3 and SONET to Ethernet, Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet is accelerating. There are big advantages in linking multiple business sites with Ethernet services that can create a single bridged LAN for the entire corporation. Scalable Ethernet connections allow companies to order the bandwidth they need today while knowing that they can quickly ramp up their WAN speed when the need arises.

Ethernet is proving itself as a reliable connection to the cloud when high speed and low latency are necessary to maintain productivity. The CloudEthernet Forum will no doubt ensure that communications to and within the cloud are able to expand as fast as needed to meet the growing demands of information technology.

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