What Can the NBASE-T Alliance Teach Us About the Standardization Process?
By Peter Jones, Chairman, NBASE-T Alliance
Standardization can sometimes be an arduous task, with unexpected twists and turns along the way and even significant disagreements among stakeholders. What seems very clear from one person’s point of view, can appear differently from another’s. The term “alliance” has the potential to conjure up memories of a nearly decade-long path to Wi-Fi, spurring industry experts to cringe at even the suggestion of a new alliance to streamline standards development.
So when Aquantia, Cisco, Freescale (now NXP) and Xilinx announced they were founding the NBASE-T Alliance in 2014, there was certainly a fair share of speculation and pessimism as to how long it would take for the industry to adopt a standard around 2.5G and 5GBASE-T Ethernet. But with last week’s approval of IEEE 802.3bzTM, we can now report that we’ve put that speculation to bed, and in an astonishingly short time-frame—less than two years. How was that possible? Here are three lessons learned from this standardization process.
Necessity is the Mother of Invention, and Mom Makes Sure We All Get Along
The NBASE-T Alliance is certainly a prime example of how an organization can clear the path to standardization and work in the way it was intended. Why? Success can be partially attributed to the sheer need for the technology, and the need for it…NOW! The need for this technology can’t be overstated. With the astonishingly huge installed base of Cat5e/6 unshielded twisted pair (UTP) copper cable—70 billion meters and 1.3 billion outlets at last count—organizations across industries were facing an impending crisis. A new generation of 802.11ac Wave 2 devices was on the way and looking directly at a 1Gb/s roadblock. Unless they were to rip and replace the cable contained inside of buildings and walls, their network speeds would remain stuck at 1G of bandwidth, and any replacement effort could take a decade to significantly impact the installed base.
The industry was hungry for a solution that could be easily adopted. Aquantia was first to come up with a technical solution to address the needs of key system vendors (e.g., Cisco). The alliance provided a forum and framework for discussion and consensus building on requirements, specifications and implementations. This technology became the core of the NBASE-T Physical Layer Specification. Building consensus across major industry groups (e.g., PHY, magnetics, system, cabling and test and measurement vendors) is key to rapid progress in standards groups. This consensus was carried into the IEEE Study Group and Task Force meetings. Cross industry compromise is critical since IEEE 802.3 runs on the basis of individual voting, with 75 percent agreement needed to move forward. Having a forum where the whole ecosystem (including groups that don’t normally attend IEEE 802.3) was represented, with the ability to see results in the field, enabled rapid progress.
People Typically Don’t Buy Cars Without a Test Drive
The existence of the alliance has meant the existence of a specification so that products can be designed and implemented in advance of the standard. These real-world solutions have enabled designers and users alike to “kick the tires” on the car, see what does and doesn’t work, and make any necessary adjustments. When this process includes many of the same experts who are also involved in authoring the standard, it doesn’t just ensure that users can test drive the technology—it gives confidence in the compatibility between products built using the specification and those built using the resulting standard.
In this case, all technical baselines adopted for IEEE 802.3bz were in line with the NBASE-T specification. As a result, in just two short years, we have a broad ecosystem of products on the market, with a vast and growing number of industries already realizing the true potential of the technology.
Our Work is Never Done
So now that we have a standard, we can just close our laptops and all go home, right? Wrong! To quote Winston Churchill, “Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”
Our next challenge is to see the technology become broadly adopted. We do this work to build “consumable technology”, and until it’s out in the real world being broadly used, we’re not done. Even recently, when speaking on a panel at the BICSI Fall Conference & Exhibition, (Deploying NBASE-T 2.5G/5GBASE-T Technologies ) it was clear that that we have a lot more work to do raising awareness of this technology so that people building or upgrading networks can make better decisions.
As more products are introduced to the market and deployed in live networks, the need for market development and education (e.g., compatibility testing, plugfests, tradeshows, etc.) will grow, not shrink.
Moreover, there is also potential work to be done in optimizing system-level solutions via new specifications and techniques outside the scope of IEEE 802.3. The alliance will keep the focus on developing and deploying 2.5G and 5GBASE-T Ethernet products for any and all industries who see the need for the technology.
Innovation will continue. Alliances will continue. Standards will continue. And the success of the 802.3bz standardization process shows that combining all three can be a winning solution for everyone.