Design Con 2015

Plenty of new activity in a supposedly-aging 10G Ethernet

-July 26, 2013

For most of the last decade, network analysts marveled at the longevity of 10G Ethernet, and its slow ramp to full production. There were plenty of lab projects like Interlaken, toying with 40G and 100G follow-ons, but most network managers seemed perfectly happy with 10-Gbit per second interfaces to servers and broadband networks. Part of the problem was related to the double-whammy recessions hitting communications markets in 2000 and 2008. Add to that the slow drop in price of 10G components, and most applications stuck with 1G backbones far longer than networking OEMs hoped.

Since 2010, production-ready cards and switches have arrived for 40G and 100G networks, and prices have stabilized at the 10-Gbit level.  One might be tempted to call this market mature.  That scarcely means, however, that there is nothing left to see but the commoditization we saw with 100-Mbit and 1-Gbit Ethernet.

Take the realm of Ethernet used as a backplane. People used to think of Ethernet's Layer 2 framing as causing too much undue overhead to use the protocol as a system backplane. IEEE's 802 group, however, saw enough nascent interest to create the 10GBASE-KR physical-layer standard for using Ethernet inside the box, as a backplane or midplane packet transfer channel. On July 25, Xilinx announced that the University of New Hampshire's InterOperability Laboratory had completed testing on the GTH transceiver in the Xilinx 7 FPGA series, for use in 10GBASE-KR applications.  Since this IP logic block was the first such approval in the FPGA industry, it indicates that the use of 10G backplanes is still in development stages.

Meanwhile, Altera has been working closely with 10G interface specialist Solarflare Communications and C compiler startup Impulse C.  In a blog piece on the financial industry last month, FPGA Gurus told you how Activ Financial had turned to the Solarflare Application Onload Engine (AOE) as a pre-packaged card that combines the Altera Stratix V with Solarflare's SFC9020X Ethernet MAC.  Now, Impulse C has introduced a dedicated development kit for a C-to-FPGA compiler, tailor-made for the Solarflare AOE.  This will allow algorithms developed for general-purpose 10G networks to be optimized for FPGA hardware.

Impulse C hinted that it had been part of the Activ Financial effort from the beginning, but the bundling of its optimizing compilers for the AOE means that Impulse C now can offer a middleware suite that will allow OEMs and system integrators in vertical market realms like high-speed trading to target to Stratix architectures rapidly.

Granted, 10G Ethernet may look long in the tooth as some of the first dedicated server-cluster networks and switched backbones come out in support of 40G and 100G Ethernet.  But the arrival of new tools for backplanes and algorithm compilers shows that 10G Ethernet is only in its adolescence.  We'll be seeing new hardware products and software applications emerging for many years to come.

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