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NBASE-T Systems Unveiled, Users Discuss Real-World Network Challenges

By Peter Jones, Chairman, NBASE-T Alliance and Principal Engineer, Cisco

The city of Milan, Italy, played host to the latest Cisco Live event where system-level solutions based on NBASE-T™ technology made their debut, and companies both demonstrated and discussed how the technology can be implemented to accelerate enterprise network performance without having to replace the large installed base of copper cabling.

For its part, Cisco unveiled and demonstrated a new line of switches based on the Cisco Catalyst Multigigabit Technology – the Catalyst 4500E, 3850 and 3560-CX. The switches leverage NBASE-T technology to deliver speeds of 2.5G and 5G on existing Cat 5e or Cat 6 cabling, in addition to supporting 1000BASE-T and 10GBASE-T on the same physical interfaces. NBASE-T technology has garnered attention from an expanding list of vendors, as well as industry observers, who recognize that existing wired infrastructure needs the technology to keep pace with 802.11ac Wave2 wireless solutions.

Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst with ZK Research, provided his own take on the Cisco announcement after seeing it in action on the Cisco Live show floor. Referring to the Cisco approach as a “silver lining” in the effort to keep pace with Wave 2 solutions, Kerravala believes the multigigabit solutions can eliminate the bottleneck that will occur when faster wireless access points are deployed without a costly rip and replace strategy or the need to implement multiple 1Gbps ports. Kerravala noted: “Pulling a cable runs anywhere from $200 to $1,000. Add in the cost of additional switch ports, and it’s pretty easy to see this is a bad idea.”

Meanwhile, Intel showed significant progress on the NBASE-T front with its own technology demonstration of pre-production network interface cards (NICs) seamlessly connecting to the new Cisco switches. Intel’s Carl Wilson, Ethernet Product Line Manager, conducted the demos and described how the new cards could be used to enable high bandwidth (above 1 Gbps) network services to workstation users over installed cabling. This will enable new applications in research and technical computing environments.

In addition to live product demonstrations, the event featured a panel exclusively focused on NBASE-T technology. With more than 50 people in attendance, the session titled “Introducing NBASE-T Alliance: Redefining Access Networks” was moderated by IDC analyst Brad Casemore and included speakers from Cisco, Intel and UZ Leuven, a large hospital based in Leuven, Belgium.

After providing an overview of NBASE-T technology and the formation of the NBASE-T Alliance, Cisco and Intel turned the conversation over to Jan Demey, team lead, IT Infrastructure, UZ Leuven, to discuss real use cases for NBASE-T technology. Demey described the unique needs of the health care industry, and the challenges that industry faces in transitioning to new cabling. According to Demey, the hospital has roughly 2,000 beds and 9,000 staff who use wireless devices for such things as bedside scanning and monitoring. They are constantly transferring large amounts of data, including medical images, via Wi-Fi laptops.

Demey stated that approximately 75 percent of their cable outlets remain Cat 5e, and the transition to new cabling is a 10-15 year process that requires full building renovation and/or construction of entirely new building wings. “We can’t disengage cabling while it’s in use. Instead, we must build a new wing, move our activities into that wing, and then strip the old building and put in new cabling.” He went on to say that space is at a premium and becomes another key factor in their choice to rewire. They use different termination systems for Cat 6a and, as a result, can’t mix Cat 6a and Cat 5e/6 in the same wiring closet. Using both in one building requires extra floor space their facilities can’t always provide.

During the panel, I discussed education institutions and sporting stadiums as additional markets facing challenges similar to the health care industry. Locations like modern stadiums or large lecture halls could also benefit from NBASE-T, as they have dense user populations and the expectation of getting a high-bandwidth, immersive experience from the network.

With NBASE-T product deployment starting to ramp, these industries now have a cost-effective, seamless way to expand their enterprise infrastructure bandwidth within the confines of their existing cabling infrastructure, and the conversation is quickly moving beyond the value proposition phase onto the question of “When can I get it?”