All about Metro Ethernet

Founding president of the Metro Ethernet Forum, Nan Chen, explains the concept of Metro Ethernet and its uses in this piece from the pages of Voice & Data Magazine.

Carrier Ethernet ready for prime time

As Australian service providers line up for Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) certification, it’s time to take a close look at the business benefits of carrier Ethernet services. Nan Chen, president and director MEF, explains.

Carrier Ethernet services are transforming business communications, delivering standardised, reliable, scalable, high-performance networking for even the most mission-critical applications — not just across a city or nation, but worldwide. The whole world becomes your local area — with all the competitive advantages that result.

Global networks allow enterprises to distribute their value chain indefinitely. Cost savings of 40 to 50% are being claimed by corporations through global distribution of functions to where they can achieve the greatest productivity at lowest cost. In the dynamic APAC region broadband is already well established in countries like Korea and Taiwan, it is a key component in India’s knowledge industry-driven economic transformation and it is rapidly gaining ground in China too.

The MEF is the industry forum driving this carrier Ethernet revolution. The forum now has around 150 members worldwide and continues to grow. In particular, its Australian membership includes Telstra, Optus, Uecomm and Demand Broadband — and we can expect the first of many of MEF carrier Ethernet certification announcements in the very near future.

The carrier Ethernet revolution

When the MEF was founded in 2001 Ethernet was the local area networking technology — with all the virtues of relative simplicity, familiarity, economies of mass production and a seemingly inexhaustible ability to increase performance in response to market demands. But as a nascent WAN technology, Ethernet fell short of the QoS, reliability and other characteristics needed to challenge existing telecommunications alternatives.

The MEF’s strategy was two-fold: to develop the necessary specifications for ‘carrier class’ Ethernet, and to initiate a well targeted PR campaign to overcome the general perception that Ethernet could only serve the local area. The former required imposing five qualities onto existing Ethernet in order to meet the conditions of wide area networking. The five ‘carrier-class’ attributes are:

  1. Scalability — in terms of bandwidth, reach (from access to global services), and number of users and services supported.
  2. Reliability — restoration capability to support traditional TDM traffic, and data flows tailored to a switched circuit network.
  3. Quality of service options allowing SLAs up to multimedia standards.
  4. Standardised services — ubiquitous global and local services via standardised equipment.
  5. Services management to carrier-class OAM using standards-based vendor independent implementations.

Rapid progress was made in defining such standards, starting in Q4 2003 with an additional six new standards ratified in the first 12 months. The next stage was to establish certification procedures, initially addressing equipment certification in April 2005, designed to provide global assurance that products and equipment comply with the MEF technical specifications and implementation agreements. The object was to accelerate service providers’ equipment selection processes, and reduce the need for repeated testing.

Then the world’s first ever service provider certification program was announced — initially focusing on carrier Ethernet service functionality but, by June 2007, carriers were being certified for service quality too. The performance criteria were well within SONET/SDH standards for key multimedia indicators like delay and jitter — thus confirming carrier Ethernet’s suitability for mission critical applications, while reducing capital and operating expenses.

Here at last was proof: not only that carrier Ethernet is ready for prime time, but also that the customer can shop for accredited services confident in the knowledge that they will perform to consistent, globally recognised standards across the nation or the world. Early adopters — including education, healthcare and financial services — migrated to carrier Ethernet and word began to spread about the resulting benefits.

Business benefits

The advantages of carrier Ethernet are manifold, but in certain cases a particular one stands out. Taking the New York Law School as an example: their challenge was to unify a multi-site campus across a busy inner-city area during a major re-building program. Here Ethernet’s key benefit was in fast and flexible deployment. For Bergen County’s schools, another early US adopter, a guiding principle was educational equality of opportunity, and Ethernet access technology meant that a consistent service could be delivered to their schools, from the remotest primary school up to senior high.

Equality of opportunity meant something different to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME): their criteria for choosing carrier Ethernet services was not just the reduced latency compared with traditional frame relay networks, but also that they could roll out a consistent service offering to their clients worldwide, thanks to MEF certification.

As the world’s largest and most diverse financial exchange, the CME trades more notional value in one month than the annual dollar value of the New York Stock Exchange and Nasdaq for a whole year combined. Their migration to carrier Ethernet began in May 2005, and by 2007 nearly 70% of their trading volume was done electronically, connecting more than 600 customers not just locally in Chicago but also across the United States’ trading centres as well as key financial centres in over 88 countries across the globe.

MEF certified carrier Ethernet allows the CME to deliver consistent services to their clients, with the same look, feel and performance worldwide. True globalisation needs this level playing field. It is not that globalisation demands blandly uniform goods and services worldwide, but rather that the portfolio of opportunities should be equal everywhere, with the flexibility to adapt to local needs and preferences rather than being restricted by geography and distance.

The MEF story is that Ethernet has extended from a local area technology through the MAN and the WAN to embrace the world, but you might also argue from a users’ perspective that it is the local area network that now extends across the world. An enterprise connected via MEF certified carrier Ethernet becomes truly global, with the distance between its New York and Sydney offices measured purely in terms of the speed of light. Yes, carrier Ethernet is shrinking our world.

Advantages for the service provider

Whatever the benefits to business, carrier Ethernet services can only become available as the service providers begin to deliver them. For the provider the advantages lie in the flexibility and scalability of these services, and the resulting cost savings that permit a more competitive offering.

In 2007, we saw the first global Ethernet services to achieve MEF 14 certification — that is an independently verified accreditation on the basis of performance quality and not just functionality of service. These enterprise-grade Ethernet services now connect Europe, North America, Asia and Australia, offering a highly granular selection of bandwidths, standard Fast-E and Gig-E interfaces and non-interrupting service upgrades, thanks to carrier Ethernet’s flexibility. The services use Ethernet over SDH/SONET to ensure low latency and jitter, and high reliability, allowing enterprises to extend their local area networks to support global video, voice and data transport and send point-to-point traffic across the world securely, seamlessly and economically. Ethernet over MPLS (EoMPLS) services are also available for both point-to-point and hub and spoke services delivered on a fully meshed, global private MPLS network.

MEF 14 certification is the key to widespread acceptance of exciting new business services like these. Combined with the assurance of the MEF product certifications, MEF 14 certification gives business the independent assurance that their mission critical applications will be supported with proven performance, reliability, scalability and flexibility.

Another expanding opportunity for carrier Ethernet deployment lies with mobile backhaul. The cost of connecting from the wireless mast back to a carrier network has become one of the biggest headaches for mobile operators relying on leased lines — with Australia’s current drift from fixed line to mobile telephones this could be a significant factor.

The increasing public use of images and video, plus an expectation of ever-falling prices, is putting pressure on the mobile companies and carrier Ethernet looks like the ideal basis for an IP-centric backhaul architecture. It is a multi-purpose technology that scales easily. Capacity can be allocated quickly, often in real-time, into any area suffering temporary congestion. Unlike SONET, it allows each service to be managed individually according to customer demand and application requirements. On the other hand, carrier Ethernet offers comfortable migration, with the MEF developing Circuit Emulation Services [CES] offering all the desirable attributes of SONET and bridging the migration gap by using today’s technology to support legacy TDM products that still generate revenue.

Carrier Ethernet offers the best of both worlds: a perfect TDM solution that is also geared up to address emerging technologies for next-generation wireless architectures such as WiMAX and 4G. It suits providers wanting high-quality Ethernet connections to their own circuit emulation technology; and it equally suits providers needing a high-quality managed circuit emulation product with separate Ethernet for data applications.

The final link

The critical factor for a global corporate network is now the last mile connection. A major global carrier may span the world’s capitals, but unless their service can reach your own office, it is irrelevant. In practice this means that a corporate WAN relies on multiple providers, and this is another area currently being addressed by the MEF.

Let’s say a company in Tokyo buys a business, or opens a branch in Perth. Each end has its company network — Ethernet, of course — and they now want to be on the same network but their Japanese carrier does not run fibre through the streets of Perth. Both offices want a ‘premium business service’, but it is unlikely that the access speeds in Perth will match the best available in Tokyo. Then there’s the question of different access media, existing carrier contracts, local budgets and so on.

If the roll-out of that company carrier Ethernet service is to become as easy as arranging a phone service, there is still work to be done on defining a basic, wholesale level of service that is recognised across the globe. The good news is that the MEF has addressed many such challenges since 2001 and has earned a reputation for delivering the necessary standards and solutions.

Already the process of planning such international services has been made easier by the launch of the MEF’s Global Services Directory (GSD) allowing enterprise users to pinpoint which service providers are providing what carrier Ethernet services in locations around the world.

Australia — the way forward

Australia, even more than the US, fits the model of dense business areas separated by vast distances. Given a high-speed fibre link between these cities, carrier Ethernet is an ideal technology for delivering connectivity to the office. It has the advantage of being compatible with fibre, cable, copper, powerlines or wireless access, allowing legacy copper or wireless access to deliver a quick first-mile solution while fibre is still being laid.

The first MEF-certified services are about to be announced, and there has been a recent surge in MEF membership from Australian providers keen to take up this opportunity.

According to Sandy Shen, research director at Gartner: “[Businesses] have to look beyond their own borders and consider untapped markets that they have perhaps not considered up until now, if they want to continue to innovate in a global economy.”

With high-speed carrier Ethernet services reaching across the continent, Australia will suddenly seem much closer to the rest of the world. Expect an influx of overseas interests, but also an equal opportunity for Australian business to reach out to new markets, and the huge untapped opportunities they offer.

About the author: Nan Chen is known in the telecom/networking industry as the founding president of the MEF. The MEF has materially shaped the telecom and internet industry by establishing carrier Ethernet as the predominant technology and service for businesses, homes, mobile infrastructure, and for next-generation networking for the Internet.

Under his leadership, MEF has quickly grown to over 150 members, and has become one of the major success stories in the new internet age, from the definiton of more than 20 industry standards to the historic definition of carrier Ethernet and eminent certification programs (480+ certificates) giving carrier Ethernet a stamp of approval ‘ready for prime time’.

Chen served as VP of marketing at Atrica (acquired by Nokia Siemens Networks); Director of Technology at Bay Networks/SynOptics (acquired by Nortel); Founding Board of Director of 10 Gigabit Ethernet Alliance; Director of Product Management & Marketing at Force10. He is also CEO of Qosera.

In his youth, he was a record holder in pole vault at Beijing University with one BSc and two MSc degrees.

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