The IEEE last week published a new standard that will enable networks built with Cat 5e and Cat 6 cables to boost their speeds from 1 Gbps to 2.5 and 5 Gbps Ethernet speeds on those cables. Dubbed IEEE 802.3bz, the standard took less than two years to become a reality. That’s Usain Bolt territory in the standards world, but does it mean the industry has crossed the finish line? The standards process often faces some pretty big hurdles -- it can be more like a steeplechase than a sprint. Alliances can go a long way in helping the industry make the leap to standardization and beyond. This is especially true in the case of IEEE 802.3bz and the NBASE-T Alliance.
Building consensus across major industry groups -- including PHY, magnetics, system, cabling, and test and measurement vendors, not to mention crucial end users -- was a must in accelerating the development of a new IEEE 802.3 standard. IEEE 802 committees are comprised of individuals, rather than companies, and each of these individuals has an equal vote. Standards approval, including all technical decisions, requires 75% agreement to move forward.
Although anyone may participate in IEEE 802.3 meetings, the commitment required means that not all groups and companies are directly represented. That brings us to the NBASE-T Alliance. Founded in 2014 by Aquantia, Cisco, Freescale (now NXP) and Xilinx, the alliance has provided an important forum for gaining consensus among more than 50 companies interested 2.5 and 5 GbE.
But the industry needs more than consensus around the theoretical application of a technology. The availability of real-world products and solutions based on a common specification gives the industry the ability to “kick the tires on the car,” and learn lessons from deploying real systems in the field. In the case of IEEE 802.3bz, the work done in the NBASE-T Alliance meetings, as well as products developed based on the NBASE-T specification, provided key context to carry into the IEEE 802.3bz process. This allowed the group to anchor its decisions in the real world, and focus on building consumable technology that addresses the needs of today and tomorrow.
What’s the rush?
The NBASE-T Alliance is a prime example of how an organization can help clear the path to standardization. Why? Success can be partially attributed to the clear opportunity for the technology. With the huge installed base of Cat5e/6 unshielded twisted pair (UTP) copper cable -- 70 billion meters and 1.3 billion outlets as of the end of 2014, according to market-research firm BSRIA -- organizations across industries have been staring at a huge roadblock between the 1Gbps limit of their current infrastructure and the daunting challenge of upgrading their buildings to Cat6A.
A new generation of 802.11ac Wave 2 APs are already hitting the 1Gbps roadblock, and the massive investment needed to rip and replace cables contained inside of buildings and walls was a clear barrier to the evolution needed to offer pervasive mobility in the workplace. The NBASE-T specification, and now the IEEE 802.3bz standard, have changed all of that. This isn’t just significant for traditional enterprise environments, but for many industries that likely would have been locked in time without a new standard.
Some of the current and potential applications for NBASE-T technology include:
More work ahead
But the industry hasn’t reached the finish line yet with the publication of a new standard. The next step is to continue working toward broad adoption -- not just adoption, but specialization to suit different niches. It’s important to make sure that people building and upgrading networks have the information needed to make the best design decisions. As product availability and deployment grow, the need for market development and education, such as e.g., plugfests, whitepapers, and tradeshow exhibits gets bigger, not smaller.
There are opportunities to do more work outside the scope of IEEE 802.3 to assist in optimization of system-level solutions. The alliance will keep its focus on developing and deploying 2.5G and 5GBASE-T Ethernet products for the wide swath of industries that see the need for the technology.
So even if the publication of the IEEE 802.3bz standard feels like the industry has finished the race, clearly there’s more work to be done. As the saying goes, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” and the NBASE-T Alliance will continue working to successfully ensure the smooth and rapid deployment of products that make a difference in the industry.
Peter Jones is a principal engineer with Cisco Systems, oversees system and software architecture for key areas within Cisco Catalyst switching platforms and is a Cisco Live Distinguished Speaker. He is also chairman and VP of the NBASE-T Alliance, evangelizing and driving standardization and market adoption for 2.5G/5G BASE-T Ethernet. Peter is actively involved in IEEE 802.3 as a key leader in 802.3bz 2.5G/5GBASE-T, as well as 25 GE SMF, YANG Data Models and 10SPE Group (10M/s single twisted pair). Aside from technology, Peter likes Celtic music, science fiction and good beer. You can find him on LinkedIn and Twitter @petergjones.