Ethernet: Flavor of the month?

Two years ago, I participated in a panel at a conference in Paris. Much of the discussion centered on IP and how it would become the protocol of choice for just about every service imaginable, thanks to the advent of MPLS. Just to be contrary, I floated the idea that Ethernet might become popular, considering its dominant status in the enterprise and the emerging 10-Gigabit Ethernet standard. Another panelist, who worked for an IP switch-router vendor, dismissed the notion, saying that Ethernet did not have the necessary attributes to be carrier class.

Of course, the IEEE 802.17 Resilient Packet Ring (RPR) standard promises to address such criticism when it is ratified later this year. AT&T's announcement that it will launch an RPR-based service in New York to provide voice, video, and data represents a huge boost to Ethernet proselytizers. But will they become as numerous—and vocal—as the IP tub-thumpers of a few years ago? I hope not.

Marco Pagani, president of optical Ethernet at Nortel Networks, represents this latest generation of protocol missionaries. Pagani's vision of optical Ethernet encompasses a network that is "always available, global, and universal," to use his words. He foresees a significant swing toward Ethernet-based networks as soon as the second half of this year or early in 2004.

However, Pagani admits that he must work to spread the good word throughout Nortel as well as to potential customers. Thus, while he believes he will triumph eventually, the head of Nortel's IP product group today is likely to believe that protocol will attain the dominance predicted by many a year or two ago—and the ATM product-line manager will add that there's a bright future for his gear, too.

In an industry humbled by two years of shrinking revenues, those who would blow Ethernet's horn should do so with mutes attached.

There will be no sweeping revolution in optical carrier networks similar to that predicted when Enron launched its IP-based network. Ethernet proponents appear to understand that; members of the RPR Alliance stress that their technology complements SONET/ SDH, IP, and other protocols on which legacy equipment depends. Pagani also stresses that there remains a role for MPLS in carrier networks as well the generic framing procedure.

I would be chagrined to hear the kind of ballyhoo surrounding Ethernet and resilient packet ring this year that we heard about IP in the midst of the optical bubble. It would tell me that this industry has yet to learn the difference between vision and hyperventilation.

Stephen M. Hardy
Editorial Director and Associate Publisher
stephenh@pennwell.com

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