Business Internet connections have changed hugely over the last 15 years. Prior to the advent of broadband, small businesses would have relied, at best, on ISDN, and may even have made do with a modem. At the turn of the millennium, ADSL arrived alongside cable modems, providing a huge leap in performance for small businesses and homes alike. Although larger companies have been able to take advantage of faster connections than this for some time, and both ADSL and cable have been steadily increasing in performance, another leap could be just around the corner. Will your next broadband connection be Ethernet?
The need for speed
Although Ethernet has been the standard networking system for corporate networks since the end of the 1980s, providing fast connectivity between business systems within a company's building, whether small or large, the connection to the outside world has lagged far behind. Cable and ADSL broadband alleviated that somewhat for consumers and small businesses, but are still many orders of magnitude slower than the internal network. With an Ethernet connection, however, speeds can range from a modest 2Mbits/sec to 1Gbit/sec, but speeds of 10Gbits/sec, 40Gbits/sec and 100Gbits/sec are possible with new forms of transport. There are even 400Gbits/sec and Terabit Ethernet speeds on the roadmap, although all these higher levels of performance will be firmly placed in service provider territory. For now, most providers are topping out at 1Gbit/sec for Internet connectivity.
A faster broadband connection would have many clear benefits for every size and level of company. If you have mobile workers using virtual private network (VPN) links to access local network resources remotely, whilst each one will be constrained by the remote connection, you don't want them to be held back by the company's main connection during peak access times. A remote desktop VPN connection can be very sensitive to bandwidth and latency, so that any deficiency in either area will have a seriously detrimental effect on a user's workflow. With the increasing requirement for audiovisual and other multimedia activities, potentially served to VPN clients, the demand for bandwidth and low latency is only set to grow greater every year.
Another obvious benefactor from faster Internet bandwidth would be cloud-based services. Both internal access to public cloud services that are hosted externally, and mobile worker access to private cloud services hosted internally, will benefit greatly. A June 2014 survey by the Cloud Industry Forum revealed that 78 per cent of companies already use cloud services for at least one application, and this only drops to 75 per cent for smaller businesses with fewer than 200 employees. More than 10 per cent use five or more different cloud services. The top three current applications are, unsurprisingly, web-hosting, email services and data backup. Enterprise spending on the cloud, estimated to be around $70 billion (£43 billion) in 2014, is expected to skyrocket to $250 billion (£155 billion) by 2017, although this is only a small proportion of the $2 trillion (£1.2 trillion) global spending on IT services in general.
However, cloud services can be particularly beneficial to small businesses, which are unlikely to have the financial ability to set up managed services or their own. Instead, it makes a lot of sense to outsource these to the cloud. The installation, risk, and maintenance are all handled by the provider. Apart from the obvious choices of having your website hosted externally, and the use of a cloud-based email service like Gmail, backing your data up to the cloud keeps this offsite on servers that are likely to be far more secure than a device kept locally in your office. But putting your customer relations management database in the cloud, and even your main data storage, can have similar cost and productivity benefits. This also makes them readily available to mobile workers, leading to more flexible work practices. However, having all of these services outside your local network will put an increased strain on your link to the Internet. This is why significantly faster Internet connectivity is a necessary enabler for this revolution, with Ethernet at the vanguard.
The technology that is set to bring Ethernet broadband to the masses is Carrier Ethernet 2.0, the latest iteration of the standard created by the Metro Ethernet Forum. The first version of Carrier Ethernet inaugurated a robust set of standards for creating WAN connections over a single service provider's network. Two main types of service were defined, E-Line and E-LAN, which are aimed at point-to-point or point-to-multipoint connections and multipoint-to-multipoint, respectively. Both have virtual private and non-virtual private flavours. With the virtual private versions, services can be multiplexed over the same infrastructure, but this still doesn't mean services can be supplied to multiple customers in a commoditised fashion over the same infrastructure.
This is where Carrier Ethernet 2.0 comes in. With the latter, new standard additions broaden the concept so that multiple classes of service can be provided over the same infrastructure, and manageability can be maintained across interconnected provider networks. Two new service types have been added called E-Tree and E-Access which greatly facilitate the provision of Ethernet to smaller companies and end users. The E-Tree service type defines a configuration where a central hub is accessible to a multitude of client connections, but these connections can't access each other, making this the perfect setup for using Ethernet for the provision of Internet connectivity, or other high-bandwidth data services, to individual customers.
E-Access, on other hand, works alongside the other three service types – E-Line, E-LAN and E-Tree. It allows one provider to carry another provider's services over its network, with the service level agreement intact. So these could be E-Line, E-LAN or E-Tree services. The topology of the service will remain. The idea behind this is that providers don't need universal infrastructure coverage to offer services. They can partner with other providers to extend their services into areas where they don't have infrastructure, or they might not run their own infrastructure at all. Whilst this is useful for companies trying to set up a wide area network between remote locations, it will also enable Ethernet-based Internet connections to be offered that span across multiple vendors' infrastructures between provider and customer. In fact, the access provider and service provider can be entirely independent. E-Access has the ability to be a virtual-private connection as well.
The Multiple Class of Service (Multi-CoS) ability of Carrier Ethernet 2.0, defined by the Metro Ethernet Forum standard 23.1 section, also means that different types of data can be prioritised, so traffic that is more sensitive to latency or variations in bandwidth can be given a higher priority than traffic that is more agnostic. For example, voice and video can be put above basic HTTP or file transfer requests. So one network can carry all these different types of data whilst maintaining the needs of each. This means that an access provider can offer resilient carriage of voice and video data or financial trading data to one service provider, alongside more general data carriage to another, widening the possible customer base for the access provider.
Management is another key improvement with Carrier Ethernet 2.0, and this works on a number of different levels. Firstly, there are standards to provide rapid provisioning and testing that services have been activated. Since the same cabling infrastructure can support multiple levels of service, a simple configuration change is all that is required to switch a customer between levels. This means service can be provided on-demand to suit customer needs dynamically. The second management enhancement is in performance monitoring with fault detection and isolation.
The Ethernet future
The primary upshot of all these new features is that access services can be bought and sold wholesale, in a broadly similar fashion to how ADSL is available as a commodity from numerous vendors, many of which may be actually using the same infrastructure to provide their services. E-Tree allows Ethernet to be offered as a commodity Internet connection, whilst E-Access means a collection of infrastructure providers can provide the access through which this service will be spread. Add in the Multi-CoS ability so these access providers can harmoniously carry different types of service, alongside the ability to rapidly deploy and maintain these services, and you have all the elements needed to turn Ethernet into a flexible solution to most Internet connectivity requirements.
For the time being, an Ethernet-based broadband connection may be fast, but even the entry level is not cheap, typically starting at between $300 and $400 (£185-£250) a month. But the arrival of Carrier Ethernet 2.0 is already allowing much greater commoditisation and competition between vendors, so the cost is set to go down, particularly in metropolitan areas. With speeds potentially of a gigabit per second and beyond available, this could finally be the broadband connection that makes the Internet and the links between your multiple premises as fast as the network inside your company premises, or at least not noticeably slower. With clear benefits for mobile workers using a VPN connection, as well as both public and private cloud services, this could also be the broadband connection that enables a slew of new business workflow possibilities as well.