Meeting Ethernet Bandwidth Demand: 1.6T Ethernet Standard

Anika Malhotra, John Swanson

Nov 02, 2021 / 4 min read

Bandwidth makes our digital world go ‘round. We need increasing amounts of networking speed to perform a wide range of activities for a broad array of industries. While the Ethernet protocol—the data connectivity backbone for the internet—is currently marked by speeds of 800G and below, it won’t be long before the need for 1.6T Ethernet data rates becomes the norm for many data-intensive applications.

Hyperscalers, with their massive data centers managing petabytes of information, have become the market disrupters, driving up speeds and influencing the Ethernet roadmap. Internet providers, too, are pushing for faster data connectivity. In this blog post, I’ll take a closer look at our insatiable appetite for bandwidth—and what you need to do to meet the demand.

Teens on Cellphones

Streaming Up a Storm

Even before the pandemic accelerated digital media consumption trends, more people have been streaming video and music, playing online games, and tapping into social media for news and entertainment—often from mobile devices. In its Digital media trends survey of roughly 2,000 U.S. consumers in February 2021, Deloitte’s Technology, Media & Telecommunications practice uncovered some interesting tidbits that highlight why bandwidth is key:

  • 82% of respondents subscribe to a video streaming service, with subscribers maintaining an average of 4 services
  • 78% of respondents described themselves as frequent or occasional gamers
  • 84% of respondents use social media
  • Members of Generation Z, who are growing up in a digital world, are influencing the online behaviors of older generations

Media consumption is just one aspect of our bandwidth-driven lives, fostered in part by 5G networks, cloud computing, and the increasing ubiquity of the internet of things (IoT). Driven by complex data workloads and big data analytics, a variety of industries—from healthcare to finance, government, and manufacturing—also has growing needs for speed and capacity. For these areas, high-performance computing (HPC) systems with parallel processing capabilities and AI algorithms produce valuable, actionable insights for applications as varied as drug discovery, risk assessment, crime forecasting, and the automated production of goods with real-time tracking.

Indeed, data is being collected continuously by an array of applications, driving the need for more compute at high speeds and low latency. Network speeds are doubling every three years and, while speeds have increased, bandwidth costs have decreased, making a host of data-intensive applications more accessible. According to TeleGeography, which tracks the market for long-haul networks and submarine cables, international bandwidth used by global networks more than doubled between 2018 and 2020, exceeding 2,000 Tbps. The main sources of this demand were major content and cloud service providers: Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon, and Microsoft.

Flexible Networking Technology of Choice

Thanks to its flexibility in supporting the same software even when the hardware in the system has been replaced, Ethernet has become the networking technology of choice. The standard also features speed negotiation and the ability to use different kinds and classes of media (such as optical fiber, copper cables, and PCB backplane).

Industry standards for Ethernet currently cover up to 400G data rates. Last April, the Ethernet Technology Consortium announced the 800GBASE-R specification for 800G Ethernet, which introduces a new media access control (MAC) and physical coding sublayer (PCS). And last fall, IEEE formed a group to consider the next transmission rate for Ethernet (800G is on the list along with 1.6T).

While some companies are starting to explore 1.6T Ethernet, we’re more likely to see prototypes emerging from early adopters in 2022. That said, now is a good time to evaluate your data connectivity infrastructure and determine how you will support 1.6T Ethernet. For starters, you’ll need to ensure that, once integrated, the MAC, PCS, and the physical medium attachment (PMA) will be able to deliver optimal performance and latency. Note that interoperability will be a difficult challenge if each of the sublayers comes from a different vendor. For 1.6T Ethernet, there are a range of configurations you can expect. Initial 16T designs will be based on a 100G SerDes and the PCS will have to support the 16 lanes needed to achieve 1.6T. As the 200G SerDes standards evolve, the PCS will need to support a PAM4 or PAM6 SerDes.

As the MAC gets designed for faster speeds, data paths have become wider. But, from a physical design standpoint, this may not be feasible for 1.6T. Something to consider. The other physical design challenge here involves the 56TB switch and its huge number of IOs, and the need to connect 50+ SerDes channels to the PCS and the MAC going into the switch. Even though the standard for 1.6T Ethernet is not yet set, it’s clear that supporting it will require some engineering creativity to manage the data volumes and optimize the connections.

With speeds increasing, there’s an opportunity to explore optical fiber connections, particularly for data centers. Copper cables are running out of steam, though engineers continue to make them work and they are more than suitable for small Ethernet installations. However, the next doubling of data rates will present opportunities to consider a transition to speedier, lighter, and thinner fiber optic Ethernet, particularly as the costs for such have come down quite a bit.

Reduce Integration Risks and Speed Time-to-Market with Ethernet IP

Low-latency, high-performance Ethernet IP can support the drive toward increasing bandwidth, playing as important a role in the high-speed Ethernet landscape as switches, routers, servers, and other hardware. With IEEE-compliant Synopsys DesignWare® Ethernet IP Solutions, for example, designers can reduce integration risks, accelerate time-to-market, and focus on product differentiation. The portfolio includes:

  • Configurable controllers and silicon-proven 112G PHYs for speeds up to 400G/800G
  • Verification IP to accelerate verification closure with a comprehensive set of protocol, methodology, verification, and productivity features
  • Software Development Kits

Once an Ethernet-based design has been developed, of course, it must be verified. This is where Synopsys VC Verification IP (VIP) and ZeBu solutions for Ethernet can help accelerate verification closure, providing a comprehensive set of protocol, methodology, verification, and productivity features. Implemented in native SystemVerilog and UVM, VC VIP runs natively on all simulators and can be integrated, configured, and customized with minimal effort. In addition, source code UNH-IOL test suites are available for key Ethernet features and clauses, allowing teams to quickly jumpstart their own custom testing and accelerate verification closure. Synopsys also offers Ethernet speed adaptors and generic ICE interface to connect the emulated design to target hardware systems, test equipment, and JTAG software debuggers.

Synopsys engineers continue to be involved in standards development, as well as development of our Ethernet IP to align with the latest. There doesn’t appear to be a foreseeable end to the growing demand for more bandwidth from so many sectors of our lives. As such, having an infrastructure that keeps pace with the requirements is essential for success.

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