One Small Step for the Data Center; One Giant leap for 10 GbE: 10 Gigabit Ethernet on the Motherboard

When I last discussed network technologies, I said the launch of the Intel® Ethernet Controller X540 ushered in the age of 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10GbE) LAN on motherboard (LOM). That might sound a bit grandiose, but to networking and IT folks who have been have been anticipating 10GbE LOM for several years, this is an important milestone.

LOM integration is one of the keys to bringing a new generation of Ethernet to the masses, because it means customers no longer need to buy an add-in adapter to get a faster network connection. This, of course, leads to greater and accelerated adoption of the new technology, placing it on track to eventually overtake its predecessor. We saw this play out with Fast Ethernet (100 megabits per second) and Gigabit Ethernet (GbE), and we’ll see the same thing with 10GbE.

But if 10GbE LOM is so important, why did it take us so long to get here? And what do the Intel Ethernet Controller X540 and 10GBASE-T bring to the show that wasn't here before?

Prior to the launch of the Intel Ethernet Controller X540, 10GBASE-T solutions required two chips: a media access controller (MAC) and a physical layer controller (PHY). Adapters based on these two-chip designs were notoriously power hungry, with a single-port card consuming nearly the 25 watt maximum allowed by the PCI Express* specification. These early products were also expensive, costing around $1,000 per port. With power requirements and costs like those, no server vendor was going to include 10GBASE-T LOM. Newer generations of 10GBASE-T products retained two-chip designs and power needs that, while lower, still weren’t suitable for LOM.


A first-generation 10GBASE-T adapter. Note the cooling fan.

The Intel Ethernet Controller X540 is the first 10GBASE-T product to fully integrate the MAC and PHY in a single-chip package. As a result, it’s the first 10GBASE-T controller that has the proper cost, power, and size characteristics for LOM implementation. Each of its two ports draws a quarter of the power required by first-generation 10GBASE-T adapters, and its 25mmx25mm package is cost-effective and requires minimal real estate. Add advanced I/O virtualization, storage over Ethernet (including NFS, iSCSI, and Fibre Channel over Ethernet), and support for I/O enhancements on the new Intel® Xeon® processor E5 family, and you can see why we’re excited about this product.


The Intel Ethernet Controller X540

But that’s just part of the story. Let’s talk about 10GBASE-T, the 10GbE standard supported by the Intel Ethernet Controller X540; it’s going to play a major role in the growth of 10GbE.

Last year I described the various 10GbE interface standards. They all have their strong points, but limitations such as reach or cost have prevented each from achieving mainstream status. 10GBASE-T hits a sweet spot, making it a logical choice for broad 10GbE deployments:

  • 10G BASE-T supports the twisted-pair copper cabling and RJ-45 connecters used in most data centers today, meaning expensive “rip and replace” infrastructure upgrades aren’t necessary.
  • It’s compatible with existing GbE equipment, providing a simple upgrade path to 10GbE. You can connect 10GBASE-T-equipped servers to your current GbE network, and they’ll connect at GbE speeds. When you’re ready to upgrade to 10GbE, you can replace your GbE switch with a 10GBASE-T switch, and your servers will connect at the higher speed.
  • It supports distances of up to 100 meters, giving it the flexibility required for various data center deployment models, including top of rack, where servers connect to a switch in the same rack, and middle of row or end of row, where servers connect to switches some distance away.

So with 10GBASE-T LOM, are we seeing the start of something big? It sure looks that way. Crehan Research projects 10GbE adapter and LOM port shipments will rise to nearly 40 million in 2015, compared to five and a quarter million in 2011[1]. And 10GBASE-T will account for over half of those 40 million ports.

Impressive numbers, aren’t they? We certainly think so.

2012 is going to be a big year for 10GbE. 10GBASE-T LOM is getting us off to a great start, and you can expect to see a new generation of 10GBASE-T switches to connect servers to the network as the ecosystem continues to grow.

If you’d like to learn more about advancements in 10GBASE-T product design, check out this article in EE Times (see page 38), penned by Intel architect and technical chair for The Ethernet Alliance 10GBASE-T Subcommittee, Dave Chalupsky.  Or listen to Brian Johnson discuss the latest Intel Ethernet Technologies on a recent episode of Intel Chip Chat below.

   A Consolidated Fabric for the Data Center – Intel® Chip Chat episode 178 by Intel Chip Chat

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[1] Crehan Research Server-class Adapter & LOM/Controllers Long-range Forecast, 1/31/2012