Gigabit networks offer a new level of functionality

In June 1998, the IEEE approved Gigabit Ethernet over fiber-optic cable. The concept of 1Gbps data rates impressed me, but the price of implementing such bleeding-edge technology didn't. Besides, a Fast Ethernet backbone and 10Mbps data transfer to the desktop was ample for almost all our needs then. By June 1999, the IEEE had advanced the Gigabit Ethernet standard to include 1000Base-T, which specifies Gigabit Ethernet over Category 5 copper cable.

The 1000Base-T standard removed a huge financial obstacle for the countless organizations that couldn't afford to upgrade Cat 5 cable to fiber-optic cable and that could work within the topology's maximum link length of 100 meters. But vendors were slow to release Gigabit Ethernet hardware with copper transceivers, and the hardware that vendors did release was expensive and suited only for large enterprises.

A year later, copper Gigabit Ethernet hardware was more plentiful. We began to see devices designed for smaller networks, and prices fell. Unmanaged copper workgroup switches cost about $300 per port, and managed switches cost about $400 per port. Gigabit Ethernet to servers and desktops was available over copper media, with Gigabit Ethernet NICs in the range of $600 to $700. Nevertheless, many organizations still couldn't justify the expense, especially to the desktop. Organizations that used the technology invested in solutions for their backbones—usually 10/100Mbps switches with Gigabit Ethernet uplinks to connect physical segments.

Today, most organizations can actually afford this technology. By the time you read this, Gigabit Ethernet NICs will likely cost about $60 and switches will break the $100-per-port barrier. Gigabit Ethernet LAN on motherboard (LOM), which Dell Computer offers on some servers, will be standard equipment on desktop systems as well.

The benefit of the technology's throughput is obvious on network backbones that have attached servers. But affordable Gigabit Ethernet also has implications for the desktop. Data speeds approaching 1000Mbps will practically eliminate network latency and will let workstations load data faster from the network than from a local hard disk. The performance of applications that you run from the network will improve significantly, and the higher bandwidth will pave the way for widespread use of rich media content across intranets.

I'm sure many of you feel that 10Mbps or 100Mbps data rates serve most desktops well and that deploying Gigabit Ethernet is overkill. After all, many end users won't exploit such a fat data pipe, and the average desktop PC can't take advantage of Gigabit Ethernet speeds. But these observations don't take into account how such speeds will make life easier for IT departments. You'll be able to complete tasks such as image-based bare-metal restores, centralized application deployment, and hardware and software inventories much more quickly. You'll be freer to deploy monitoring or management applications that used to be hamstrung by scalability problems because the applications' desktop agents saturated the networks with data. Training and communication using high-quality video also will become much more common.

In the end, Gigabit Ethernet will become the de facto standard on LANs, and our networks will step up to a new level of functionality. By then, we'll be speculating about the implications of the 10 Gigabit Ethernet standard.