November 11, 2008
By Charles Waltner
It's the story of the little technology that could.
Ethernet, once the obscure inhabitant of back office computer systems, has now moved center stage in the communication revolution. In efforts to upgrade the world's networks for handling rapidly increasing traffic payloads brought on by the Internet - particularly video-based communications and entertainment - Ethernet is now widely viewed as the path to the future.
Today, Cisco announced a little something to help clear the way. The world's largest maker of networking equipment unveiled a new member to its growing family of routers custom-made for the Information Age. Known as the Cisco Aggregation Services Router 9000 (ASR 9000), the company says the machine has six times more capacity and is four times faster than any other router in its class. In fact, the company says, the brawny router is more powerful than any other competing router, period.
The ASR 9000 also includes new technologies for proactively managing notoriously challenging video signals. It makes corrections and ensures picture quality for ultra-clear high-definition TV and other video services, Cisco executives say.
On top of that, the company says, the ASR 9000 can run 40 percent more efficiently than competing products, helping save the planet and saving money for network operators.
Super-Sizing the Internet's Intersections
"Aggregation" routers like the ASR 9000 sit at the intersections where hundreds of individual network connections from homes, businesses, and cell towers merge onto major digital communications highways. Cisco says its muscular, modular machine is built to keep pace with the radical surge in Internet traffic threatening to clog these crucial Internet junctions.
The ASR 9000, for example, can support 100 megabits per second (Mbps) to homes, compared to the common 1.5 Mbps "broadband" connections now available.
So far, some of the world's largest telecommunications companies, including Japan's Softbank Corp., have signed up for the device. The ASR 9000 uses the same software operating system as Cisco's flagship backbone router, the CRS-1, which now runs the Autobahn superhighways of the global Internet for more than 200 communications service providers.
The ASR 9000, which embraces Ethernet as the foundation to managing digital traffic, represents a pivotal step in a remarkable and, in many ways, improbable journey for this networking technology.
Ethernet was invented more than 30 years ago by four engineers at the hall-of-fame technology lab, Xerox PARC, in Palo Alto, Calif. One of those engineers, Bob Metcalfe, left Xerox in 1979 to start 3Com. He convinced Digital Equipment Corp., Intel, and Xerox to work together to promote Ethernet as a standard for desktop computer networks. That effort proved a remarkable success. Soon, Ethernet became the dominant technology for local area network (LAN) communications among PCs and servers.
There Ethernet sat until the Internet took hold. By the late 1990s Cisco and others realized that existing public networks built for telephones simply could not handle the on-rush of multimedia Internet content. Ethernet, built from the ground up to manage the digital packets of modern networks, became a promising option.
Besides its innate ability to process digital payloads, the move to Ethernet has also been driven in large part by the technology's costs. Because of their popularity in business and other private networks, Ethernet devices enjoy an economy of scale that makes them pound-for-pound far cheaper than other options. "You can get eight-times the bandwidth for one-third the price. It's sort of a no-brainer," says Eve Griliches, an analyst with research consultancy IDC.
Ethernet Takes Hold
Standards have also been a major catalyst of Ethernet's wider adoption, says Glen Hunt, a principal analyst with Current Analysis. Unlike with many networking technologies, Hunt says most equipment vendors readily cooperated to hammer out specifics of how to adopt Ethernet for the Internet's largest networks run by telecommunications companies, a collection of standards known as "Carrier Ethernet."
Thanks to this confluence of factors, the global market for Carrier Ethernet equipment has been growing rapidly and is expected to double in size by 2012 to $14.5 billion, according to IDC. It is now one of the fastest growing segments of the telecommunications equipment industry.
Cisco bet heavy and early on Carrier Ethernet, jumping to a big lead and holding a solid majority of the market since its start about five years ago. It was a natural fit for the networking giant's raison d'etre to converge all forms of communication onto one Internet-based communications infrastructure. Certainly, the ASR 9000 embraces this credo. "It's a pure Carrier Ethernet machine, crisp and clean," Hunt says.
The fates of Cisco and Ethernet have long been linked. Cisco started out more than 20 years ago as a vendor of networking equipment to corporations. At the same time, Ethernet was quickly becoming the technology of choice for these networks. Since then, both Ethernet and Cisco have succeeded in equal measure.
But many thought Ethernet could go no further. It was often maligned for being too simple to take on the more complicated tasks of running major telecommunications systems. Again and again, however, it has surprised its doubters. "Let's face it, Ethernet has always been in some ways like the Forrest Gump of the networking world. It's not complex, and occasionally it messes up, but it can run really fast, and it doesn't seem to upset anyone, and because of those simple but valuable qualities, over the years it's turned up everywhere," columnist Ed Gubbins wrote in a June issue of Telephony Online.
Ethernet's tenacity and adaptability has even surprised its inventor and number one evangelist. "It has been very exciting to watch Ethernet succeed beyond my wildest dreams," wrote Bob Metcalfe in an email to News@Cisco. "Ethernet is Internet plumbing...and the Internet finally needs its native packet plumbing end-to-end."
Despite its surprising transformation, Ethernet still faces some challenges. Griliches says bringing new functions and capabilities onto Ethernet begins to complicate the relatively simple technology, one of its greatest strengths. "This is far more difficult than people make it out to be," she says. "There are a lot of adjustments to make to Ethernet. We're really at the beginning of a cycle rather than at the end."
Though the industry's commitment to Ethernet is clear, Hunt estimates it will be another four to six years before Ethernet is pervasive in larger metropolitan, regional and global networks. Telecoms have already invested billions of dollars in existing infrastructure based on old telephone circuitry that will take them years to amortize. "There's still lots of different kinds of networks out there," he says.
But telecommunications companies can hardly bide their time. Change is being forced upon them by rapidly growing Internet traffic, driven in large part by online video, IPTV, and wireless devices. Cisco estimates Internet protocol (IP) traffic will grow 46 percent per year through 2012, with video becoming roughly 90 percent of all traffic.
Phone companies need machines like the ASR 9000 to provide high-definition, on-demand TV to compete with cable companies that are now selling phone and data services. Also, surging wireless traffic is forcing cellular companies to upgrade their "backhaul" lines that connect cell towers to the Internet's wired networks. And businesses want more Ethernet connections to help simplify the management of their increasingly far-flung networks.
Cisco's expertise with Ethernet is serving it well in its efforts to address these needs. As the world's foremost authority on the technology, it is helping the industry adopt Ethernet for the growing communications challenges brought on by the rapid growth of video traffic. The ASR 9000 is a case in point.
Praveen Akkiraju, the general manager for the ASR 9000 project, says about two years ago his group faced a difficult decision as it became clear just how dramatically video would be reshaping the communications landscape. He says his team had to take a deep breath and refocus on this crucial networking challenge. Now, they are more than glad that they made that fateful decision.
"We had to put the brakes on as we realized that half-measures simply wouldn't do," Akkiraju says. "The team did a great job in creating far more capacity and capability for this machine than we originally envisioned. Thanks to all of that hard work, we now look forward to the ASR 9000 joining the ranks of the other great Cisco routers."
Charles Waltner is a freelance writer in Piedmont, Calif.