The World Runs on Ethernet: Enterprises

Oct. 28, 2022
Ethernet’s adoption continues to spread across application spaces with increasing diversity in its rates and implementation. This initial post of a blog series from the Ethernet Alliance looks at the unfolding story from the perspective of enterprises.

Ethernet’s adoption continues to spread across application spaces with increasing diversity in its rates and implementation. New higher-capacity modules are being introduced to support multiple ports of a lower rate of Ethernet as their primary purpose. In some cases, the new higher rate of Ethernet that the module could support has not yet been defined but is in process to be standardized, such as in the case of 800-Gbps and 1.6-Tbps Ethernet. The new co-packaged optics scheme goes even farther with target implementation capacity that goes well beyond even the rates of Ethernet in consideration (e.g., 3.2 Tbps).

This blog series, based on the Ethernet Alliance’s 2022 Ethernet Roadmap, defines aspects of Ethernet in diverse deployment scenarios. In this post, we look at the unfolding story from the perspective of enterprises.

Where Are We?

Enterprise and campus applications remain a huge market for Ethernet technology, with over a billion ports shipping per year. Most of these ports utilize BASE-T twisted-pair cabling at the access layer with both multimode and single-mode fiber links (MMF/SMF) further into the network.

Changing needs of IEEE 802.11 Wi-Fi access points, as well as enterprise-class client devices, are contributing to the technology transitions in Ethernet technologies for enterprise applications. In general, every person today is wireless—things have wires, and people are wireless, with Wi-Fi being our primary means of connectivity to the network via smartphones, laptops, docking stations, etc. The continued growth of Wi-Fi is clear in both the devices we buy and the industry reports.1 While the people are wireless, behind (almost) all access points is an Ethernet link. In addition, the range of things connected to Ethernet continues to expand beyond the traditional phones and printers (e.g., hybrid work collaboration systems).

Meanwhile, operational technology (OT) networking is something new for Ethernet. Take a look into the ceiling of a contemporary office today, and you might well find one or two Wi-Fi access points but perhaps 10 or 20 other things that are going to have to be connected to the Ethernet network. This is crucial to realizing enterprise goals around phenomena such as smart buildings, energy efficiency, sustainability, etc. Just as in the late 1980s and early ‘90s when information technology (IT) networks moved away from a variety of legacy protocols to convergence on Internet Protocol (IP) and Ethernet, the OT world is poised for the same transition today.

The takeaway for Ethernet from the story is that the technology must continue to embrace its core role as infrastructure undergirding the wired and wireless connections to the network.

Where Next?

The shift that Ethernet network managers face, however, is much more complex and wide-ranging than simply accommodating growth in one or two of the growing range of applications running across their infrastructures.

It’s clear that hybrid work is here to stay, but it has become equally clear that setting up a facility for hybrid work is a difficult thing. A shared office space with only a desk is not attractive. In announcing Ford’s plans in 2020 for Michigan Central Station, for example, the company’s Detroit development director and Ford Fund president, Mary Culler, talked about “providing flexible work spaces that attract and engage the best minds.”

Regardless of the size of enterprise and industry, workers moving forward will demand the same capabilities in the office when they happen to be there as they might have at home—and vice versa. And a facility where people are present on average for only two days a week needs to look and behave differently than a facility where people go to work five days a week. These facts entail both a restructuring of the office space for shared work and rollout of enterprise-class connectivity to homes.

That's a restructure of how enterprises serve their people. At the same time, enterprise network managers are faced with bringing everything else in that building onto the same network.

It’s a huge task facing enterprise network managers. Furthermore, physical infrastructure in the enterprise space tends to be stable for a long time. New Ethernet technologies that allow additional reuse of this infrastructure enable the opportunity to make this transition without major disruption to the facility. This allows the enterprises to have their facilities “evolve” to support the emerging needs.

Paving the Way Forward

Multiple Ethernet technology innovations are helping facilitate the massive change that enterprise networking is amid:

The BASE-T ports that are so prevalent across the access layer of enterprise and campus applications today are transitioning from 1000BASE-T to 2.5G/5G/10G BASE-T, while optical ports are moving from 10G/40G to 25/100G.

Single-Pair Ethernet (SPE), for example, is a crucial facilitator of change, allowing OT networks to become part of a seamless, Ethernet-based network. Originally defined in the IEEE 802.3cg, a standard that was published in 2020, SPE substantially boosts the performance, security, flexibility, and manageability of the OT networks on which the building- and industrial-automation industries depend. Moreover, SPE is one of the ways that the Ethernet ecosystem is helping enterprises more cost-efficiently achieve their long-term goals by leveraging installed infrastructure and enabling it to be utilized more effectively over time.

Power over Ethernet (PoE), defined by IEEE 802.3 standards, is providing efficient and robust methods of delivering electrical power with data via Ethernet cabling. According to Dell’Oro Group's "4Q 2021 Ethernet Switch – Campus Report," Power over Ethernet (PoE) ports recorded strong, double-digit growth and comprised 30 percent of total ports in 2021. Enterprise market uptake is growing, too. The Sinclair Hotel Fort Worth (a Marriott property in Texas), for example, is a large-scale adopter of PoE. “Sinclair is on a quest to eliminate 80% of the electrical panels from the hotel,” Tina Danielsen wrote in 2020 for Realcomm. “The system’s plug and play simplicity will enable everything from operations to guest services, including appliances, TVs, air conditioning units, outlets, motorized window shades, mini bars, interactive mirrors, door locks, guestroom hair dryers, and irons.”

Tracking Progress

The Ethernet Alliance’s 2022 Ethernet Roadmap is the industry’s only publicly available Ethernet guide sharing key underlying technologies, current and future interfaces, and the growing range of application spaces where Ethernet plays a fundamental role. As the industry voice for Ethernet, the Ethernet Alliance is ideally positioned to drive conversations and distill insights into this useful tool.

Already, the Ethernet Alliance is planning for future iterations of the roadmap, and we encourage enterprises to engage in the process of tracking the technology’s ongoing evolution. For more information about the Ethernet Alliance, please visit our website, view "The Voices of Ethernet" interview collection, download the 2022 Ethernet Roadmap, read the blog and newsletter, and follow us on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook.

Peter Jones is chair of the Ethernet Alliance and a Distinguished Engineer in Cisco’s Enterprise HW team.


1. “Wireless connectivity semiconductor revenue increased by 42.8% in 2021, to $18.8 billion,” Gartner reported in Market Share: Wireless LAN, Bluetooth, GNSS and NFC Semiconductors, Worldwide, 2021.

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