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400 Gigabit Ethernet Is Here, but Who Benefits?

Jeff Harris
8/10/2017
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High-speed Ethernet is a moving target. While 100 Gigabit Ethernet (GE) is still rolling out, 400GE is already nipping at its heels. In fact, IEEE802.3bs-compliant, with traffic line rates up to 400GE, was demoed for the first time at OFC 2017 in March, proving that higher-speed Ethernet is not waiting: The next generation of Ethernet speed is on its way.

It's for good reasons, too. The 400GE standard is not only four times as fast, it will also offer a better economy of scale and a denser configuration, leading to a more attractive price-per-port. A one-rack unit with 32 ports of 400GE will be less expensive to build than a two-rack unit with 64 ports of 200GE. In addition, 400GE also includes Forward Error Correction (FEC), a hard requirement set by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) effectively easing specifications of electrical and optical components for a given polarization mode dispersion (PMD).

Essentially, including FEC reduces power, cost and testing time.

But what can we expect from 400GE? What industries need the higher speed and efficiencies?

1. Cloud service providers
The efficiencies inherent in 400GE are music to the ears of cloud service providers such as Amazon, Microsoft and IBM (Google seems smitten with 200GE). These vendors are building massive cloud-scale data centers that will power tomorrow's global economy and they need the efficiency and density that 400GE provides, in addition to the massive performance upgrade.

According to the Dell'Oro Group, it is these three companies that are driving the growth of 400GE, perhaps pushing the industry to transition to the new Ethernet protocol by the end of 2019. In addition, their newfound buying power has earned them outsized influence over high-speed Ethernet standards groups, pushing for requirements such as FEC that drive efficiency and density.

2. Telecommunications providers
Beyond the cloud, it is the telecom operators that are dealing with a flood of traffic. It is no secret that we, as consumers, are hyper-connected at home, at the office, at play and on the move, accessing content wherever and whenever we want.

With the average person having 3.4 connected mobile devices by 2020, according to Cisco, telecoms have to handle more traffic through their already massive data centers. Like Amazon, Microsoft and IBM, they are finding that highly efficient and dense architectures can save them hundreds of millions of dollars long-term.

3. Distributed businesses and campuses
The hyper-connected user is not the only challenge for telecoms. Traffic from mobile devices is actually moving off cellular networks to Wi-Fi, putting additional strain on WLANs in enterprise branch offices and campus networks. IT organizations are working to increase speed and bandwidth at an alarming rate in an attempt to keep up with these growing throughput needs.

At the same time, new advances in networked storage, such as solid state drives (SSD) and Remote Direct Memory Access (RDMA), are pushing speed boundaries across storage hardware. However, it will not matter how fast your IT hardware is if networks cannot keep pace.

4. Anyone that relies on high-bandwidth applications
You should not forget the application layer either. Bandwidth-hungry apps that rely on rich media require higher speeds. Streaming video, gaming and digital marketing all benefit from 400GE becoming the de facto networking standard. Online games, for example -- especially those set in virtual worlds visited by millions of users interacting in real time -- require hyperscale data centers that would run more efficiently on a 400GE infrastructure.

Concurrently, big brands around the world are embracing digital marketing technology that offer prospective buyers an in-store experience online. Think about a 'build-your-own pickup truck' that you can customize with accessories and styles, similar to a virtual dressing room where you can mix and match outfits. Of course, there are also video service providers such as Netflix that will benefit from the efficiencies that 400GE will bring.

So, what's next?
Network equipment manufacturers need to start preparing for the 400GE evolution with testing environments capable of high-speed Ethernet. It is critical that these networks simulate real-world conditions for the applications running on them. It is equally important to leverage 400GE throughout the entire network stack: It will not matter if your Layer 2-3 infrastructure supports 400GE if Layer 1 does not.

The next generation of Ethernet speed is here and 400GE is targeting the current and next generation of consumption. The leading cloud vendors are counting on this new Ethernet protocol to help them power the new global economy. Everyone else, whether they use a mobile device or Wi-Fi to access high-bandwidth applications, will benefit as well.

Testing is just the beginning, because 400GE will be here sooner than we think.

— Jeff Harris, Vice President, Solutions Marketing, Ixia

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