The race to 25G Ethernet: Seven critical issues that will decide the winner

"Often marketers treat new technology like a foot race, and for some it seems the ultimate goal is to be the first to announce a new product. But in reality the first to announce doesn't actually determine the end of the story," says Kevin Deierling, VP of marketing at Mellanox Technologies, a leading supplier of end-to-end interconnect solutions for data centre servers and storage systems – distributed in more than 20 African countries by value-added distributor, Networks Unlimited.

"In reality," continues Deierling, "there are many issues that need to be considered when choosing the right partners with which to deploy new technologies, and an aggressive marketing department willing to announce a product just to be first, is the least important of these considerations."

He highlights the new 25Gb/s Ethernet technology, which is now literally hitting full stride with major server vendors announcing support for both adapters and switches. Mellanox has been at the vanguard of this technology, being one of the original founders of the 25 Gigabit Ethernet Consortium, along with hyperscale providers like Google and Microsoft.

So if "first to announce" isn't the primary consideration to determine ultimate success with a new technology, it raises the question of what is important?

Here is Deierling's take on the top seven considerations to evaluate companies that will actually determine success in the new 25GbE technology:

1. Technology

The first and most critical consideration for most customers is the core features and capabilities of a new technology. What is most important here is that the technology just works, and that the advanced feature set can be easily consumed and delivers true business value. Mellanox offers ConnectX-4 Lx 25/50 GbE adapters that supply not just 2.5X higher bandwidth, but combine this with advanced networking offloads that accelerate cloud, virtualisation, storage and communications. These offloads mean that more CPU power is available to run applications rather than being consumed by moving data. So the ultimate benefit is application and infrastructure efficiency that results in a better data centre ROI using 25GbE.

2. Manufacturing and operational capabilities

So even if the technology works and has the features you need, it is vital to consider whether your technology partner can manufacture and deliver 25GbE products in high volume and in a timely fashion that meets your business needs. There is nothing more frustrating than having significant customer system revenue opportunity delayed or lost because of supply chain problems with a single component.

Mellanox has proven itself as a reliable supplier shipping to the largest OEM and data centre customers in the world. It is today's market share leader in high performance Ethernet NICs (>10Gb/s) with over 90% market share, shipping millions of ConnectX adapters to the largest public cloud, Web 2.0, storage, and server OEM customers every year with reliable and dependable delivery. Its ConnectX-4 Lx adapters are a mature product line, with a broad set of software driver support, and have been battle hardened in real world deployments. Mellanox also maintains significant inventory that is staged throughout the world to enable it to meet upside demand on an expedited schedule.

3. Price/performance

Industry analysts are predicting that 25GbE will have the fastest adoption ramp ever for a new Ethernet technology. To make this forecast a reality requires not only 25GbE technology that is both manufacturable and offers better features and capabilities, but also provides a true price/ performance advantage.

25GbE delivers on both fronts with better price/performance. While 25GbE Ethernet is slightly more expensive than the 10GbE pricing, when normalised for price/performance it is much cheaper on a rand/Gbit/s of bandwidth.

In fact the 25GbE pricing is very competitive, with only a 30% to 40% premium over 10GbE, and this premium is expected to come down over time. To achieve these competitive pricing levels requires devices that are optimised to support 25GbE.

This is precisely why Mellanox introduced new ConnectX-4 Lx silicon for its 25GbE adapter products. The ConnectX-4 Lx is a dedicated 25/50GbE device with a X8 PCIe interface. This is in contrast to the larger and more expensive ConnectX-4 device, which has a wider PCIe interface and is capable of supporting 100GbE performance levels. Other offerings that try to cut corners with one-size fits all approach won't be able to meet the aggressive price targets required by this market.

4. Ease of adoption

Mellanox has worked hard to ensure that 25Gb/s Ethernet offers a seamless upgrade to 10 GbE environments, with backwards compatibility that uses the same 10GbE LC fibre cabling that has already been deployed in the data centre. Other 25GbE NIC offerings require the use of special QSFP to SFP28 breakout cables, and thus do not provide backwards compatibility with existing LC fibre. In fact there is no solution to connect these NICs to fibre at all. By contrast the ConnectX-4 Lx offers ordinary SFP style connectors enabling a choice of either copper or fibre connectivity in the same manner as existing 10GbE is deployed.

5. Product robustness and reliability

It is critical that a new technology is robust and reliable. Even a few bad customer experiences can create a perception that a technology has issues and is not ready for primetime. The perception of poor reliability is difficult to overcome and can set back the adoption of a new technology for years. Building a robust and reliable product is hard and requires everything (silicon, hardware, software and components) to be designed to the highest standards and built to last. Often weakness in one area can cascade and cause challenges that impact the entire system design and limit product reliability.

For example, a high-powered device may require special cooling such as a mechanical fan. This should be a red flag as it can cause many thermal and mechanical challenges and has the potential to limit the overall reliability and adversely impact mean time between failures. Fortunately, Mellanox ConnectX-4 Lx Adapters are low power and don't require fans. The adapters are fully qualified and shipping as GA products. All of these products have undergone rigorous qualification screening and are designed for reliable operation.

6. Corporate and financial stability

When you choose a technology provider, you are also choosing a business partner and it is important to consider the financial health and corporate wellbeing of the company behind the technology. After all, supporting and qualifying a new technology is difficult and requires a significant resource investment by the system vendor. You want to make sure that your business partner is financially healthy with a strong leadership team in place and will continue to invest in software and hardware to drive the technology forward. A company that is financially strong with growing revenues and profits has the ability to continue to invest research and development resources to expand application support and develop new technology.

It can be a huge setback to find that all of your key contacts at your technology supplier suddenly don't work there anymore. So when you choose your technology partners consider not just the technology, operational capabilities, and reliability but also the financial health and stability of the companies with which you work.

7. End-to-end portfolio

When introducing a new technology it is important that a comprehensive product offering is in place that allows for end-to-end connectivity. Mellanox has an entire end-to-end product line including 25, 50, and 100 GbE ConnectX-4/4Lx adapters, Spectrum switches, and LinkX cables that are generally available and shipping in volume. This is important as it allows Mellanox to perform integration and optimisation at every level of the product line to ensure that solutions just work. By qualifying our end-to-end product line we learn a great deal about each individual component, which allows us to improve on all fronts.

But it is equally important that we have interoperability with the entire 25 Gb/s Ethernet eco-system.

Adds Anton Jacobsz, MD of Networks Unlimited, "Mellanox is one of the founding members of the 25 Gigabit Ethernet Consortium, a member of the Ethernet Alliance and a founding member of the RoCE Initiative, and is thus is committed to compliance and interoperability in order to drive 25Gb/s Ethernet technology forward – offering fantastic technology, winning benefits and great value to the African region, which is experiencing a rapid increase in data."

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