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Mix Magazine

This installment of The Bitstream column appeared in the June 2001 issue of Mix Magazine.

The Bitstream

This column discusses discusses the technology underlying current WAN & LAN technology…

I’m Networking, Baby

T’was nigh on a year ago that I spent a bit of time with the subject of networking. A fair amount of progress has been made since then, which is all for the better for us techno–junkies. This month, I’ll mix up some of my typical forward thinking stuff with practical tips for network deployment in your world.

Perhaps the three most important developments in networking circles these days are the rise of DWDM or Dense Wave Division Multiplexing, the computing industry’s acceptance of IP as the king of transport protocols, and the wholesale deployment of 1000BaseT by those who hear the siren song of more bandwidth.

Let’s start with DWDM, the means by which the Internet will have bandwidth to spare without breaking the bank. A simple concept, DWDM allows one glass fiber to carry many data streams, instead of one, via frequency–domain multiplexing. In days of yore, a single fiber within a bundle of one hundred carried a stream of, say, 10 Gbps of data encoded on a single wavelength or color of light. With a bunch of optical wavelength routing gadgetry, it is currently possible to launch 32 different wavelengths down that same individual fiber and tease them apart at the other end, significantly multiplying the payload capability without physically changing the cable and with relatively minor changes to the supporting infrastructure. The result: improved service at a reduced cost, a nice combination. That increase in payload capability will, as with all things digital, only accelerate with time, allowing us to deemphasize shear bandwidth and maximally efficient topologies in favor of total end user satisfaction which is the same as minimal pain and suffering for you, the Little Guy.

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 their advertised performance. This may mean that, instead of the 5 year ramp up time typical for a new technology, we may see full blown acceptance (read: commodity pricing) of GigE in 4 years. With GigE, performance is the key. GigE circumnavigates the collision detection jive that slows 10 and 100BaseT protocols, giving you really decent speeds closer to the theoretical maximum than it’s predecessors. Hook that in to home connectivity via xDSL and broadband alternatives joining the now venerable cable modem such as satellite and the still shaky wireless protocols such as Bluetooth, and you’ve got a kickin’ combination. Interoperability issues coupled with the naked greed and deep pockets of the old school phone companies, aka Incumbent Local Exchange Carriers, have kept penetration of DSL and cable to only 5% of households through predatory pricing. Take heart, though. A year ago, fiber to the home was, in North America, a Canadian phenomenon. Now, we’re seeing the beginnings of optical broadband to 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 the ability to set up and tear down scalable broadband connections as needed.

There are plenty of new technologies to eat up all that newly minted bandwidth. The slow acceptance of xSPs; Application Service Providers like thinkfree.com and Storage Service Providers like xdrive.com, the rise of peer–to–peer (P2P) networking and the dawning of so called wavelength disk drives or storage via the intrinsically distributed network are both possible only through low cost access to the internet. MPEG4 will take broadband subscribers into a new world as scalable, high quality rich media delivery. On several fronts, researchers are creating the opposite of hierarchical, server–based storage, what Microsoft’s guys describe as a “hierarchy–free…serverless file systems.” Sounds better than fat free for sure…A sign that P2P is The Next Big Thing comes from the chief architect of IBM’s Lotus Notes suite, who has started offering groove.net, a new, buttoned down mutant of Gnutella.

The improvements in WAN and LAN bandwidth sashay hand in hand with the triumph of Internet Protocol as the reigning champ in transporting data. This will accelerate two trends: one being the blurring of LAN, MAN and WAN, and the other being the replacement of niche storage protocols, like SSA and Fibre Channel, with IP. The result: again, lower cost along with better management and interoperability…Better management. As with storage, specifying and deploying networks isn't too difficult if you take your time, it’s managing and maintaining the system that saps your maintenance dude’s will to live. Look for improvements in that area as well.

Now stop your whining. You’re saying, “Wait one doggone minute! I just bought a wickedly expensive Fibre Channel SAN and now you’re telling me it’s obsolete!” No Bunky, I’m not saying that. I’m simply telling you that Fibre Channel isn’t forever. So, if you’re designing a new install or upgrading an existing one, here’s a piece of free advise — Copper is dead, long live optical. Cat5E will barely cut it for short haul runs and if your going to invest in Cat6 to the desktop or beyond, consider fiber for your backbone and longer hauls. Also, look for hardware–accelerated HBAs or NICs that perform the IP stack busywork in hardware. This off-loads much of the burden from the host CPU, resulting in significantly lower processor utilization and near–wire speeds for the network interface. In other words, your computer isn’t busy doing networking stuff so it can concentrate on getting your vocal parts just right. If you’re cheap, er…I mean, price sensitive, may I suggest a 1394–based network at twice the throughput of 100BaseT at a vey low cost. As a bonus, you can push digital audio down that same highway as the IP traffic. One final tidbit: for ethernetworking, hire an experienced installer, it’ll save you money in the long run. After all, though we may not see iSCSI support by Digidesign in our lifetimes, for the rest of the digital universe, the network, as Scott McNealy used to say, is the computer.

Bio

When at work, OMas keeps his customer’s wallets fat and their blood pressure low. At home, he enjoys the new livability afforded by San Francisco’s recently deflated dot bomb economy. This column was created while under the influence of his new TiBook 500 and Bird’s Complete Savoy and Dial Studio Recordings.