Gigabit Ethernet--The Core of the Network
Gigabit ethernet is fast becoming an industry standard. Do you know what it is? More important, do you know what it can do to bolster the networking power of your most demanding RIP workstation or workgroup server? Better find out—your competition may already be capitalizing on this ethernet craze.
BY MARIE RANOIA ALONSO
Centralized content. As more and more digitally minded commercial printers exploit the merits of faster desktop publishing workstations and higher performance servers, fast ethernet functionality is becoming the standard connection. But, for truly high performance networking, gigabit ethernet is making some serious strides.
What is gigabit ethernet?
Put simply, "gigabit" is a networking technology that allows a commercial printer to transfer more data around its organization faster at 1,000 mbps—1,000 megabits or 1,000,000 bits of data per second—roughly a 10 times improvement over fast ethernet.
"In other words, it's a much fatter pipe for data to flow through," explains John Marshall, industry marketing manager for media and entertainment at 3Com. "Furthermore, it is a familiar technology, similar to fast ethernet, so it protects a commercial printer's MIS and production employees from the need to learn an entirely new technology, which translates into saved training dollars."
So, where does gigabit ethernet fit into a commercial printer's network? Gigabit ethernet best fits as a connectivity solution—a backbone technology—that provides significantly higher bandwidth capabilities, allowing demanding RIP workstations and abused workgroup servers to function faster.
Acting as a pipeline for digital information, gigabit ethernet allows graphic arts organizations to utilize a significantly higher bandwidth for work on RIP workstations and an array of other workgroup components. Gigabit ethernet can increase the overall throughput of a prepress department, typically by a factor of four times to 15 times, thereby allowing prepress personnel to handle more tasks per day.
Picture this: Ten prepress personnel are all working on separate files. One is retouching color, a second is manipulating images, a third selecting fonts, a fourth is scanning art and formatting the art on a template, and so on. All 10 people are gaining access to the server at the same time through a traditional server route.
"Imagine 10 people all trying to sip 10 ounces of water per second through a thin straw. And each of those 10 straws is connected to another main straw, which is connected to the water source," 3Com's Marshall suggests. "Now, imagine your server is the water source, with all these different workstations tapping into it for data. You are going to need one very fat straw connecting all these smaller straws to the water source—otherwise, only one out of 10 employees will work productively."
Gigabit ethernet is one fat straw. For example, with gigabit ethernet in place, printers and service bureaus with multi-platform sites can enhance the efficiency of transferring large files, thus dramatically increasing prepress performance.
"Gigabit ethernet is a technology targeting the prepress environments of the Top 500 commercial printers in the United States and beyond," Marshall adds. Based in Santa Clara, CA, 3Com offers larger printing companies a range of chassis-based switches for the core of the network, including the CoreBuilder 9000 and the CoreBuilder 3500. For the medium- to small-sized printer backbone or the large company workgroup, 3Com offers a range of gigabit ethernet stackable switches, including the SuperStack II 9300, 3900, 9000 and other fast ethernet switches with gigabit ethernet uplinks.
"As more and more of publishing production and the printing process go digital—and are further challenged by issues like CTP, digital workflow and content management—top executives at publishing and printing companies are going to recognize the need for a digital infrastructure to support such a digital effort," Marshall says.
Going for Gigabit
Recently, Publishing Solutions, a subsidiary of value-added reseller Multigraphics, introduced G-NIC II, a gigabit ethernet PCI card for the Apple Macintosh that increases transfer efficiency of large files in multi-platform client/server networks by up to 4,000 percent.
Packet Engines—a gigabit ethernet networking company—developed the G-NIC II networking card for Windows NT and UNIX operating systems to complement its family of gigabit ethernet hubs and switching products. Publishing Solutions partnered with Packet Engines to develop a software driver for the Macintosh, which is optimized for Macintosh 0S 8.5.
"In one day, an average commercial printer can move tremendous volumes of digital data, terabytes of data, across a small network using gigabit ethernet," reports Ray T. Leach, president of Publishing Solutions, an Akron, OH-based systems integrator serving high-end printers, designers and corporate communications departments.
"Gigabit ethernet networking capabilities have the promise to totally change the data component of a prepress company by increasing the power of the workgroup or server group within a prepress facility," Leach contends. "Gigabit ethernet can retool the core of a network, making the entire network more effective from a networking performance standpoint."
So, who is sold on gigabit ethernet? For one, Heidelberg, as Dan Kita, manager of the Operations Analysis Group—the consulting arm of Heidelberg USA—confirms. He is active in gigabit ethernet planning and design projects.
Kita reports that Heidelberg USA partners with 3Com and Data General to provide network, server and database solutions for the printing and publishing industry. Data General is a major supplier of storage and enterprise computing solutions worldwide.
"Heidelberg views gigabit ethernet as the great enabler of database technology," Kita explains. "Because of the extra stress client/server operations put on the network, we have typically tried to avoid their use in prepress; however, gigabit ethernet is arriving at just the right time to complement recent database technology developments. Therefore, we believe that it will be an accelerant to the mainstream use of database technologies."
What is the reality of gigabit? Kita takes a spin. "It's easy for all of us to get caught up in the euphoria over a 10 times increase in potential bandwidth," he states.
"As a major solutions provider, however, Heidelberg tries to properly set customer expectations to ensure that they don't get ahead of reality by assuming that a major increase in potential bandwidth is immediately going to have a major impact. This has happened before, particularly with fast ethernet."
"The real advantage was that more network activity could occur simultaneously, due to the bandwidth increase," he continues.
With gigabit, speeds can be expected to be about the same, or perhaps slightly faster, in a well-designed network. As workstation capability increases, or in instances where the network really is the bottleneck, gigabit ethernet can open up the network for better performance."
In the short term, Heidelberg and many other prepress technology providers forecast networks reaching further and further into the pressroom and bindery through direct imaging initiatives and continued movements in CIP3 adoption.
Eventually, connectivity of prepress, press and postpress will be a given. "Then, there's no turning back: The printing enterprise will require an aggregate bandwidth well in excess of fast ethernet," Kita predicts.
Hello gigabit ethernet.
The Great Gigabit Consortium
Where there's a new technology, there's a new consortium. Gigabit ethernet is no exception. The Gigabit Ethernet Consortium is an industry interoperability test group formed last year to provide a forum for industry discussion, dissemination and testing relative to the implementation and use of gigabit ethernet technology.
The consortium was officially established with the following goals:
- Provide a long-term independent facility where gigabit ethernet products can be tested in a heterogeneous environment.
- Provide a medium scale, heterogeneous environment for experimental operation outside of normal gigabit ethernet design limits.
- Develop a set of interoperability tests and testing procedures that will provide a high level of confidence in product interoperability.
- Develop tests and procedures to diagnose interoperability problems.
- Simplify interoperability testing procedures by reducing organizational overhead.
- Provide a forum for the exchange of technical information between consortium members concerning issues related to gigabit ethernet networks and products.
Founding members of the Consortium are 3Com, Bay Networks, Cabletron, Cisco Systems, Extreme Networks, Foundry Networks, Jato Technologies, Madge Networks, Matsushita Electric Works, Netcom Systems, Packet Engines, Prominet, Sun Microsystems, Texas Instruments, XaQti and XLNT.