Gigabit Ethernet Vendors Say the OS Is the Limit

Gigabit Ethernet standards are falling into place. The hardware is available to enable 1,000-Mbps network traffic. So what’s keeping data from racing through cables at such blinding speeds? In the view of some of the main proponents of Gigabit Ethernet, it’s the operating system. And some vendors look to the release of Windows NT 5.0 with great anticipation for improvements.

"Right now you’re still limited by the operating system as far as how much you can transmit," says Jeff White, vice president of marketing for Packet Engines Inc. (Spokane, Wash.,, a vendor of Ethernet hardware. "In a network, switch-to-switch, we can transmit a gigabit. But in a server you’re somewhere between 400 and 600 Mbps." Windows NT Server 4.0 performance is similar to the performance of Gigabit Ethernet on Unix and other operating systems, says White. "With NT 5.0 coming, we expect [performance] to increase."

Tony Lee, chairman of the Gigabit Ethernet Alliance (Palo Alto, Calif.,, offers a more conservative estimate of the speed NIC vendors are attaining on Windows NT. Those vendors include 3Com Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.,, Intel Corp., Sun Microsystems Computer Co., Alteon Networks Inc. (San Jose, Calif., and Packet Engines, Lee says. "Performance varies but also depends on the type of system being used, and is usually in the range of 350 to 450 Mbps," says Lee, who is also the product line manager for Extreme Networks (Cupertino, Calif., "Optimizing the operating system and running on higher-performance systems or systems with multiple processors will eventually enable the realization of full Gigabit Ethernet performance."

Lee predicts that the coupling of Gigabit Ethernet and Windows NT will be the path by which many enterprises make the jump to high-bandwidth networks. "Gigabit Ethernet will speed migration to the high-speed network due to its backward compatibility and low cost," he says. "Gigabit Ethernet can make the network connection bottleneck a nonissue by providing more bandwidth than needed at a very reasonable cost."

One of the leading vendors of ATM and a frequent advocate of that rival technology, Fore Systems Inc. (Warrendale, Pa., has some positive things to say about Gigabit Ethernet right now. Ron McKenzie, Fore Systems vice president for strategic marketing, says, "[A year ago] there was a lot of hype in the technical press around one technology vs. another. [Now] it’s not about being religious about one technology over another. It’s about building a business solution to a problem." Still, McKenzie reserves special status for ATM, a broad-band technology valued by many of its supporters for its quality of service in voice and video. "In some cases, depending on the size of the network, Gigabit Ethernet is an ideal choice. As that network gets large, I may choose to use ATM in the core because of its inherent capabilities to be self-tuning, self-healing."

ATM transmits data in the range of 25 Mbps to 622 Mbps, and like Gigabit Ethernet can function as both LAN and backbone. In late June, the IEEE standards board approved the 802.3z standard for Gigabit Ethernet backbones over fiber. The following month, the balloting process began for a 1,000Base-T standard, which is currently expected to be completed in March of 1999. The timetable roughly coincides with the expected release of Windows NT 5.0, which Microsoft Corp. announced just went out in beta 2. The synergy could give Gigabit Ethernet technology a boost in both bandwidth and usage. "The early adopters of Gigabit Ethernet had started implementing it in late 1997, and mainstream adoption will start in 1999," the alliance’s Lee says.