An analyst has told enterprise IT and network professionals they will toss away more than US$10 billion on Gigabit Ethernet LAN gear over the next two years that would be better spent on technologies designed to support increasingly distributed workforces.

"The majority of network designers continue to be caught in traditional design practices," said Mark Fabbi, Gartner vice president and distinguished analyst, speaking at the company's Symposium/ITxpo in San Francisco. "They continue to spend money on bigger and faster core networking technologies at their headquarters and large locations that don't actually serve the user population."

Fabbi's claim is something of a new twist on the old "throw bandwidth at the problem vs. using QoS and other techniques to fit bandwidth to application demands" debate. The analyst argued that most corporate applications - even videoconferencing and VoIP - do not require more than a few hundred kbit/s of bandwidth.

"Astute network managers will focus their attention on the upper layers of the stack, and look to security, data control, application optimisation and mobility services as key features that will benefit the organisation far more than installing Gigabit Ethernet for all desktops," Fabbi said.

Gig goes ubiquitious
An industry trend Fabbi is addressing is the ubiquity of 10/100/1000Mbit/s switch equipment from 3Com, Cisco, Extreme, Nortel and others. Most new modular and stackable switch products released for enterprise-class networks in the past year are based on triple-speed ports, which autonegotiate links based on the connection speed of clients that are also going overwhelmingly Gigabit. Built-in 10/100/1000 interface cards are now standard features on many PCs from Dell, HP and others.

But from a cost standpoint, the question of whether to go Gigabit is complex. Application usage, the form factor of the products and the medium of the wiring all contribute to the cost of the technology and the decision to use it, analysts and users say.

In spite of popular beliefs caused by dramatic price reductions in the last few years, "Gigabit Ethernet is not free," says Seamus Crehan, an analyst with the Dell'Oro Group. "Gigabit Ethernet still has a very significant price premium over Fast Ethernet, but you have to break down the market a little."

Averaging out the entire industry, the cost of a Gigabit port was 80 percent to 300 percent the price of a Fast Ethernet port in 2005. But considerations must be made on switch form factor, such as chassis-based or stackable switches.

The industry average for a modular Gigabit Ethernet port in 2005 was around $300, while a Fast Ethernet modular port was around $170. But this includes fibre and copper ports. Crehan estimates copper modular Gigabit costs only around 25 percent more per port than Fast Ethernet. (An example is a 48-port line card for the Cisco Catalyst 6500: $6,000 for 10/100, and $7,000 for 10/100/1000 ports). In 2005, Gigabit modular ports outsold Fast Ethernet modular ports by 50 percent.

"It's no coincidence that large businesses have adopted modular Gigabit in chassis switches," Crehan says. "Generally, those large networks tend to have chassis all the way out to the wiring closets, and they future-proof more and have a greater need for bandwidth."

Over-engineering vs staying up-to-date
Network professionals agree that for the small price of upgrading to Gigabit in these specific cases, the purchase is worth it even if the bandwidth isn't being used.

At the First American National Bank of Texas, a regional bank with 30 locations in North Texas, almost half the Cisco switch ports deployed are 10/100/1000, and almost 60 percent of the Dell desktops have Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards built in.

"I wouldn't consider it over-engineering the network," says Kurt Paige, network administrator for the bank. "I consider it staying on top of the technology. If we're going to buy a piece of equipment and we can get a 10/100/1000 port for only a little more, we'll go with the newer switch, even if the speed may not be used."

Besides increased speed, newer switches offer features such as 802.1X authentication, wireless LAN network integration and QoS capabilities that are rolled into the 10/100/1000 hardware, Paige adds.

At the North Bronx Health Network in New York, LAN ports range from 10M to 10Gbps. Extreme backbone switches link with 10G Ethernet, while some users have Gigabit links to view digital radiology images. But the majority of users still connect with 10/100Mbps, says Adorian Ignat, director of IT.

"We have some 10/100/1000 ports to desktops but not very many right now," Ignat says. "If I don't need that bandwidth there's no sense in putting it in right now."

While he is not looking to drive Gigabit to the desktop, Ignat says triple-speed ports facing the desktop are inevitable, as part of the regular cycle of LAN and PC upgrades.

"You always change out about 35 percent of your computers every year, and the new ones come with new Gigabit cards," Ignat says. "If I'm going to buy new switches, I'm going to buy them with the latest cards, which will probably be 10/100/1000."

Gig tows other features in too
But couldn't the premium paid for Gigabit Ethernet be put toward other technologies? It actually is, Ignat says. "I can't say it's a waste of money," he says. "When you buy new switches, you're buying something for the next three to five years. Newer line cards have newer features and chipsets that do other things that you may need." In the case of Extreme, switch ASICs on its latest cards include security features, network management and packet monitoring capabilities Ignat finds valuable.

"A lot of our customers have told us it's a use-it-or-lose-it mentality with their budget," says Mike Flaum, product brand manager for Nortel's Ethernet switch business. "Once they have the funding to make [an] upgrade, they buy the best equipment available at that time. . . . Do you need the Gigabit today? You probably don't, but in the next five to seven years as you depreciate that equipment, you want to build your network for future uses and the capabilities for that."

This five-to-seven year outlook is something users should keep in mind when buying switches, and not just in terms of bandwidth, one industry observer says. Built-in security in LAN switches is what buyers should really be looking for. Whether the ports are Fast or Gigabit Ethernet should be secondary.

"The [LAN] environment has changed," says Lawrence Orans, principal analyst with Gartner. "Five years ago, we weren't worried about worms on internal networks. Then things like Sasser and Blaster changed the game. Now we have to be aware of those kinds of threats, and protection has to be built into the Ethernet switch to take care of that."