Not long ago, the 11 megabits per second speed of 802.11b wireless access points was a big selling point. Then came the “lightning fast” 54 Mbps 802.11g specification, followed by the unheard-of 300 Mbps speed of 802.11n. Today’s wireless networks have grown so fast that they are becoming challenging to integrate with many wired infrastructures.
From mobile devices and cloud-based apps to the Internet of Things and bring-your-own-device policies, the demands on wireless networks continue to grow. To meet these demands, 802.11ac Wave 2 access points are capable of delivering speeds up to 5 gigabits per second. One problem: The Category 5e and CAT 6 cabling in most buildings limits them to 1 Gbps.
To surpass this 1 Gbps max, enterprises can upgrade CAT 5e and CAT 6 cabling to CAT 6A, which supports up to 10 Gbps as well as Power over Ethernet (PoE). But for many organizations, such an upgrade would come with prohibitively high costs, not to mention additional complexity as well as the disruption of general network activity. In fact, most enterprises replace cable only every 15 years or longer; some only if they renovate or move buildings. Since CAT 5e and CAT 6 cabling is so widespread, some observers have estimated that it would cost in the billions to replace worldwide.
“It’s costly, it’s complicated and it may just be impossible for some,” says Peter Jones, a principal engineer with Cisco Systems.
So enterprises are left in a frustrating position: They have technology that can increase their network throughput and eliminate bottlenecks, but they can’t take advantage of it because their infrastructures can’t support it.
"If you take an access point that can push 2 gigabit, and you stick it onto a network that's 1 gigabit, you’re only getting half your capacity, and that becomes the hard limit,” explains Mike Fratto, principal analyst at Current Analysis. “So the companies moving to 802.11ac were either stuck with this 1 gig limit, or they had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to run new cabling.”
That’s where NBASE-T technology comes in. The NBASE-T Alliance, which Jones chairs, has been working to develop 2.5- and 5-gigabit Ethernet over twisted-pair copper cabling. This capability would allow 802.11ac access points to move wireless traffic at the multigigabit speeds they’re capable of reaching without having to upgrade from the copper cable they have installed.
“It meets that potential gap in the market,” says Joel Snyder, a senior partner at Opus One.
Digging Deeper Into NBASE-T
NBASE-T is a new specification for Ethernet signaling that enables wireless traffic to move at faster speeds than are now possible over installed twisted-pair cables. CAT 5e and CAT 6 cables, which are in the majority of buildings today, max out at 1 Gbps, but with NBASE-T technology, they’re capable of supporting speeds of up to 5 Gbps over 100 meters.
Most users today connect to the Internet wirelessly, where they perform a growing portion of their daily functions — everything from shopping to videoconferencing. “But the end user is going to feel the pain if the wireless access point isn't delivering the bandwidth they paid for because the upstream connection is limited,” explains David Chalupsky, a network product architect for Intel who also is a board member for the NBASE-T Alliance. “To keep the individual users happy, we have to improve not only the wireless technology but also the wired backhaul that gets the traffic into the network.”
In addition to faster speeds, NBASE-T products support PoE, which is not available with fiber. PoE eliminates the cost and complexity of running separate power lines to support networking hardware.
Another advantage of NBASE-T technology is that it does auto-negotiation, which means access points and switches can negotiate speeds up to 5 Gbps as needed.
Some enterprises are able to surpass the 1 Gbps limit of CAT 5e and CAT 6 cabling through link aggregation, which bonds two cables together. But instead of merging into a multigigabit pipe, link aggregation provides two separate 1 Gbps pipes, and the switches lay some traffic on one cable and the rest on the other, explains Fratto. By load balancing that traffic, organizations can get up to 2 Gbps, but this capability comes with some drawbacks and complications.
“Link aggregation is a little black magic-y for most people,” adds Snyder. “People like simpler. If they can run one wire and get 2 gig as opposed to running two wires and doing some configuration, they’ll run one wire.”
Adoption Starting Soon
As enterprises move to 802.11ac equipment, their wireless throughput will cross the 1 gigabit threshold. The question is: When will they be able to adopt NBASE-T technology to take advantage of the speeds available on their networks?
Cisco and HP have already launched switches with multigigabit capabilities, and the industry expects access points early this year. ASUS has announced a network interface controller (NIC) card, and Intel has announced an NBASE-T controller chip and shown preproduction NICs at various tradeshows. Also of note, the IEEE 802.3bz working group is validating this technology and creating a standard for adoption in the September 2016 timeframe.
"I think there's a market for the people who need a bit more than 1 gig and will end up with 2.5 gigabits,” says Jones. But, he adds, "We're in a position where the market can really start to grow. Right now I think there are a lot of great opportunities, but end devices are just starting to arrive, and we have to let the market mature.”
Which Apps Could Take Advantage of NBASE-T?
Snyder believes that many organizations don’t yet need multigigabit Ethernet, but fields that use applications such as video editing and high-performance computing might need to increase their throughputs without upgrading to fiber. “There certainly are people who are going to have applications for it,” he says.
But, Chalupsky notes, while individual users might not need more than 1 Gbps, a single access point connects multiple users with an array of devices, from notebooks to tablets to smartphones. “If they all have to split the 1 gig, then they're going to feel the pain, and there was no reason for them to update to faster Wi-Fi," he explains. “The 802.11ac technology allows that the total bandwidth going through that access point to be well over 1 gigabit, so we're basically leaving bandwidth and money on the table if we can't get greater than 1 gigabit for the uplink out of the Wi-Fi access point.”
Medical facilities are also likely to adopt NBASE-T technology. They upload medical images, such as x-rays and scans, onto their networks, and doctors need to be able to download these images onto notebooks and tablets, says Jones.
The NBASE-T Alliance has seen similar interest from universities, where researchers move large data sets back and forth. Industrial design is another field that could benefit from NBASE-T solutions because of the massive files that can be transferred among users working on a large project.
But, Jones adds, the benefits of NBASE-T technology aren’t confined to just a few industries. “There's a class of high-end user,” he explains. “It might not be everyone in your enterprise. It might be 5, 10, 15 percent. Giving people the ability to basically get more bandwidth without recabling their building makes it much easier to support those users.”
Fratto believes the demand for NBASE-T products will be universal in the near future. When asked what types of organizations could benefit from them, he doesn’t hesitate. “All of them,” he says. “Everybody.
“In two years,” Fratto adds, “this won’t even be an issue. It will be a checkbox — must support NBASE-T.”
To learn more about network optimization from CDW, click here. To learn more about how NBASE-T can help businesses, check out this CDW blog post, "NBASE-T Helps Enterprises Meet Growing Mobility Demands on the Network."
For additional networking news, check out, "The Internet of Things Offers Insights to Manufacturing, Retail and Other Industries" and "How Managed Networks Can Deliver Better Wi-Fi Service."