'Twas nigh on a year ago that I spent a bit of time with thesubject of networking. A fair amount of progress has been madesince then, which is all the better for us techno junkies. Thismonth, I'll mix up some of my typical forward thinking withpractical tips for network deployment in your world.
Perhaps the three most important developments in networkingcircles these days are the rise of DWDM (Dense Wave DivisionMultiplexing), the computing industry's acceptance of IP as theking of transport protocols and the wholesale deployment of1000-BaseT by those who hear the siren song of more bandwidth.
Let's start with DWDM, the means by which the Internet will havebandwidth to spare, without breaking the bank. A simple concept,DWDM allows one glass fiber to carry many data streams, instead ofone, via frequency-domain multiplexing. In days of yore, a singlefiber within a bundle of 100 carried a stream of, say, 10 Gigabitsper second of data encoded on a single wavelength or color oflight. With a bunch of optical wavelength routing gadgetry, it iscurrently possible to launch 32 different wavelengths down thatsame individual fiber and tease them apart at the other end,significantly multiplying the payload capability, withoutphysically changing the cable and with relatively minor changes tothe supporting infrastructure. The result: improved service at areduced cost, a nice combination. That increase in payloadcapability will, as with all things digital, only accelerate withtime, allowing us to de-emphasize sheer bandwidth and maximizeefficient topologies in favor of total end-user satisfaction, whichis the same as minimal pain and suffering for you, the LittleGuy.
On to 1000BaseT, or Gigabit Ethernet. Hell, this year alone,Apple will ship tens of thousands of Gigabit Ethernet-equipped G4s,and that's only in Apple's niche. Prices for Gigabit switches,while not what I'd call affordable for many, are in-line with theiradvertised performance. This may mean that instead of the five-yearramp-up time typical for a new technology, we may see full-blownacceptance (read: commodity pricing) of GigE in four years.
With GigE, performance is the key. GigE circumnavigates thecollision detection jive that slows 10- and 100BaseT protocols,giving you really decent speeds closer to the theoretical maximumthan its predecessors do. Hook that into home connectivity via xDSLand broadband alternatives — joining the now venerable cablemodem such as satellite and the still shaky wireless protocols suchas Bluetooth — and you've got a kickin' combination.Interoperability issues coupled with the naked greed and deeppockets of the old school phone companies, aka Incumbent LocalExchange Carriers, have kept penetration of DSL and cable to only5% of households through predatory pricing. Take heart, though. Ayear ago, fiber to the home was, in North America, a Canadianphenomenon. Now, we're seeing the beginnings of optical broadbandto the home here in the good ol' U.S. of A. This trend will result,in a few years, in wavelength-on-demand to home and office with theability to set up and tear down scalable broadband connections asneeded.
There are plenty of new technologies to eat up all that newlyminted bandwidth: the slow acceptance of xSPs; Application ServiceProviders like thinkfree.com and Storage Service Providers likexdrive.com; the rise of peer-to-peer (P2P) networking; and thedawning of so called wavelength disk drives or storage via theintrinsically distributed network — both possible onlythrough low-cost access to the Internet. MPEG-4 will take broadbandsubscribers into a new world as scalable, high-quality rich mediadelivery. On several fronts, researchers are creating the oppositeof hierarchical, server-based storage, what Microsoft's guysdescribe as “hierarchy-free…server-less filesystems.” Sounds better than fat-free for sure. A sign thatP2P is The Next Big Thing comes from the chief architect of IBM'sLotus Notes suite, who has started offering groove.net, a newbuttoned-down mutant of Gnutella.
The improvements in WAN and LAN bandwidth sashay hand in handwith the triumph of Internet Protocol as the reigning champ intransporting data. This will accelerate two trends: one being theblurring of LAN, MAN and WAN, and the other being the replacementof niche storage protocols, like SSA and Fibre Channel, with IP.The result: again, lower cost along with better management andinteroperability…better management. As with storage,specifying and deploying networks isn't too difficult if you takeyour time. It's managing and maintaining the system that saps yourmaintenance dude's will to live. Look for improvements in that areaas well.
Now stop your whining. You're saying, “Wait one doggonedminute! I just bought a wickedly expensive Fibre Channel SAN, andnow you're telling me it's obsolete!” No, Sherman, I'm notsaying that. I'm simply telling you that Fibre Channel isn'tforever. So, if you're designing a new install or upgrading anexisting one, then here's a piece of free advice: Copper is dead,long live optical. Cat5E will barely cut it for short-haul runs,and if you're going to invest in Cat6 to the desktop or beyond,then consider fiber for your backbone and longer hauls. Also, lookfor hardware-accelerated HBAs or NICs that perform the IP stackbusywork in hardware. This off-loads much of the burden from thehost CPU, resulting in significantly lower processor utilizationand near-wire speeds for the network interface. In other words,your computer isn't busy doing networking stuff, so it canconcentrate on getting your vocal parts just right. If you're cheap— er, I mean, price-sensitive — may I suggest a1394-based network at twice the throughput of 100BaseT at a verylow cost. As a bonus, you can push digital audio down that samehighway as the IP traffic. One final tidbit: For Ethernet working,hire an experienced installer — it'll save you money in thelong run. After all, though we may not see iSCSI support byDigidesign in our lifetime, for the rest of the digital universe,the network, as Scott McNealy used to say, is thecomputer.
When at work, OMas keeps his customer's wallets fat and theirblood pressure low. At home, he enjoys the new livability affordedby San Francisco's recently deflated dot-bomb economy. This columnwas created while under the influence of his new TiBook 500 andBird's Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings. Links andoccasional commentary at http://seneschal.net.