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Technology

Ethernet to Get Faster, Cheaper

It's not just wireless networks that are getting faster -- the wires behind them are, too.

Ethernet connections, which enable computers to communicate with each other over a network within organizations and over the Internet, are about to get a lot speedier.

Currently such connections operate at about 100 gigabits (100 billion bits) per second, but researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) are developing connections that will operate at 1 terabit (1 trillion bits) per second by 2015 and a whopping 100 terabits per second by 2020 -- 1,000 times faster than the current speed.

The gains will come through the use of photonics or light waves rather than electronics. Using light waves will reduce power consumption and heat generated by a factor of 10, saving businesses and other Ethernet users money on their electric and cooling bills, besides increasing circuit speed.

Today’s Ethernet technologies can’t be pushed beyond the 100 gigabit level -- the speed that’s beginning to be implemented now -- because of the amount of power needed to run and cool the required systems, according to Daniel Blumenthal, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UCSB, who is leading the project at the Terabit Optical Ethernet Center (TOEC).

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Large data centers, he notes, can use as much power as a small city.

“We’re going to need much faster networking to handle the explosion of Internet traffic and support new large-scale applications like cloud computing,” Blumenthal says.

Although wireless connections are coming on strong for mobile applications, most firms will continue to use hardwired Ethernet connections. “It’s an accepted, flexible interface” for data transmission both on a small scale and across global networks, says David Farber, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

The amount of traffic using Ethernet is growing rapidly, thanks to applications like streaming high-definition video, cloud computing and distributed data storage. All demand faster connections to work satisfactorily.

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“Based on current traffic growth, it is clear that 1 terabit per second trunks will be needed in the near future,” says Stuart Elby, vice president of network architecture at Verizon. “The work that will be conducted at TOEC will enable the future of the Internet,” he adds.

Blumenthal says the TOEC project’s goal is to “make energy-saving technologies that will allow applications and the underlying networks to continue to scale as needed. You could think of it as greening future networks and the systems that rely on those networks.”

The research at the TOEC is supported by Verizon, Agilent Technologies, Google, Intel and Rockwell Collins and is based on the center’s photonic integrated circuit technology and silicon photonics technology.