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NBASE-T switches help organizations 'futureproof' networks

Early adopters are turning to the new IEEE Ethernet standard, 802.3bz, to help ensure their wireless networks can meet the bandwidth demands of tomorrow.

As the advent of cloud computing has upended traditional rip-and-replace cycles at many enterprises, the networking industry has found itself grappling with tectonic changes and a plethora of unknowns over the past several years. Amidst all this uncertainty, one clear trend caught the attention of beleaguered vendors: Organizations' reliance on wireless networks has increased dramatically. This, in turn, has prompted a demand for more flexible networking gear capable of scaling to meet growing bandwidth demand.

The networking industry responded by developing IEEE 802.3bz -- an Ethernet standard also referred to as NBASE-T. It calls for the addition of multigigabit speeds of 2.5 Gbps on CAT5e cable and 5 Gbps on CAT6 cable.

Now, traditional networking companies such as Cisco and Hewlett Packard Enterprise-Aruba offer NBASE-T switches that can handle 1, 2.5, 5 and 10 Gigabit Ethernet. The switches offer flexibility and help organizations either add on bandwidth as their wireless networks expand, or futureproof for a time down the line when their bandwidth requirements will inevitably grow.

"This is actually a good idea, especially as there are more people running on wireless networks and workers are [using] more bandwidth-intensive applications," said Tim Zimmerman, a research vice president at Gartner who covers networking technologies.

Zimmerman added that, for the most part, early adopters are deploying the technology at this stage. The organizations tend to be colleges and universities that have budget money available only every five to seven years, so they deploy 802.3bz to futureproof their networks. Other early adopters include medical or engineering firms that run bandwidth-intensive magnetic resonance imaging or computer-aided design applications.

NBASE-T switches make the grade

The Houston Community College System in Texas exemplifies Zimmerman's point about early adopters.

Having this flexibility helps us manage the ever-increasing video traffic at the college. Today, roughly two-thirds of our traffic is video-based.
Kyle Cooperdirector of network and telecommunications at Houston Community College

Kyle Cooper, director of network and telecommunications, said about four years ago, the college started work on a $480 million building expansion project, with a portion of available funds allocated to technology infrastructure.

Cooper, who manages technology for 26 campuses, 75,000 students, and 6,500 faculty and staff, said the college was looking for networking technology that could handle the new Wave 2 access points (APs) that the networking companies were shipping.

About six months ago, the college started with Wave 2 on two campuses, using Cisco's 3802 Wave 2 wireless APs. Cooper said that all new access point deployments in the future will be Wave 2.

"We needed a technology that could handle multigigabit speeds, but let us do it over existing CAT5e and CAT6 cabling," he said. "And it also needed to let us run Universal Power over Ethernet over existing cabling."

Cooper did some research and decided to deploy NBASE-T switches from Cisco. The Catalyst Multigigabit switch has a 48-port line card that lets the college manage bandwidth flexibly. Twelve of the ports are multigigabit lines that support 802.3bz at 2.5 and 5 Gbps. The switch also supports 10 Gigabit Ethernet (GbE) so Cooper doesn't have to run dedicated hardware for his more bandwidth-intensive applications. Using the Catalyst switches, the school can standardize network deployments and refreshes in both old and new buildings, using a single switch and line-card type.

"Having this flexibility helps us manage the ever-increasing video traffic at the college," Cooper said. "Today, roughly two-thirds of our traffic is video-based."

Cooper added that while the college doesn't currently utilize all the bandwidth capabilities of the multigigabit switch, the network infrastructure has to last roughly seven to 10 years. He said the multigigabit technology helps ensure the college has a network in place that can support its future needs and growth.

Waiting it out

Other organizations see the potential benefits of NBASE-T switches, but think it's still early in the technology's lifecycle.

Joe Inzerillo, executive vice president and CTO at MLB Advanced Media in New York City, said his group would definitely find 2.5/5 Gbps Ethernet of interest, but it all comes down to price.

"In 12 to 18 months, when we're ready to do a refresh, if the multigigabit switches are only 10% to 20% more expensive, then it's something that would be of interest," Inzerillo said. "If they were much more expensive, then we would probably wait out that refresh cycle."

On the other hand, Inzerillo said there's definitely a use case at MLB Advanced Media for a 5 Gbps pipe.

"A 1080p stream takes up about 3 Gbps, so running 3-gig video over a 5-gig pipe would be nice," he explained.

David Hunter, network design engineer at Indiana University, echoed Inzerillo, saying the university probably won't upgrade to 802.3bz for at least a couple of years.

But much like MLB Advanced Media, Indiana University also has potential use cases for NBASE-T switches. For one, they could use the 802.3bz switches to deliver more bandwidth to the university's wireless access points. And multigigabit lines would also be of interest to the university's research community.

Unlike Houston Community College, Hunter said Indiana University has a much steadier refresh cycle, so they typically don't have to wait five to seven years to upgrade.

"As wireless evolves we will review our switches and look at doing a refresh," he said.

Ryan Harden, research and advanced networking architect at the University of Chicago, said the university will move to 802.3bz in due time. If nothing else, it will do so to support its newer wireless access points.

"Honestly, it's not much of a concern for us," Harden said. "Most of the big network providers have switches that support 2.5/5 Gbps, so if and when the time comes, we'll simply switch our deployment standard to one of those."

While networking vendors make a strong argument for NBASE-T switches -- most everyone finds 802.3bz of interest and can come up with use cases that make sense for a mid-tier level of bandwidth -- for many, it's not yet a must-have technology. More than likely, as the 2.5/5 Gbps speeds become standard in new switches, the vast majority of organizations will just make this part of a routine upgrade. 

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This was last published in March 2017

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