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Ready When You Are

The economics of moving to Gigabit Ethernet get more attractive

Many companies are upgrading selectively. Natural gas producer Chesapeake Energy Corp. last year migrated from an asynchronous transfer mode network to an Extreme Networks Inc. BlackDiamond Gigabit Ethernet platform because several key vendors were no longer supporting the ATM equipment. The company has about 70% of its servers connected to a 10-Gigabit Ethernet backbone, says network supervisor Bryan Sagebiel. Most of Chesapeake Energy's employees are linked to the network at 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps, but a dozen workstations that run bandwidth-hungry geophysical modeling applications and regularly upload and download massive seismic data files are linked at gigabit speeds. For now, that's all that's required. But Sagebiel says he's prepared to upgrade "as the need arises."

Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois is upgrading to Gigabit Ethernet and has already deployed a high-speed Cisco Systems Catalyst 6509 switch in its network core. The lab, operated by the U.S. Department of Energy, is home to 4,000 scientists who run high-bandwidth applications, including data collection, climatology, and research. Over the next two years, the lab will roll out Gigabit Ethernet to every desk, even though not everyone needs that kind of bandwidth. "There's value in having 10/100/1000 [Mbps] style flexibility," says Scott Pinkerton, Argonne's networking solutions manager, because it's hard to know who will wind up sitting where and what amount of bandwidth they'll need.

PC vendors are helping drive the move to faster networks by equipping their new systems for the higher speeds. "There are new triple-speed [network-interface cards] in most all of the new PCs and laptops," says analyst Nick Lippis, president of consulting firm Lippis Enterprises. "There's actually a huge amount of gigabit availability out there."

Networking vendors, which have suffered from slow sales during the past few years, are beefing up their product lines to convince customers to spend again on network upgrades. Market leader Cisco last month introduced modules for its Catalyst 6500 enterprise network switch that provide Gigabit and 10-Gigabit Ethernet ports.

Such products ultimately will find a larger market, as competition continues to drive down hardware prices, and bandwidth-intensive applications begin filling network pipes. Eventually, analysts say, the standard approach will be to deploy 10-Gigabit Ethernet on the core network and Gigabit Ethernet to the desktop. "I don't think there's a flash point," says Lippis. "There's a kind of a gradual curve, a migration that happens."

For Ohio State's Link, that migration needed to happen sooner rather than later. The new center was designed to be a showcase for the school's high-tech operations and aspirations, so a super-high-speed network was essential. The state-of-the-art network also can help attract talent, Link says. "From a faculty perspective, accessing streaming multimedia materials for research or lab equipment or anything across institutions is very inviting," he says. "As competitive as things are, institutions are always looking for an advantage."

Sure, Gigabit Ethernet is overkill for most companies, but that will change. Says Link, "Someday, people are going to want to utilize that bandwidth."

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