Getting Started With Gigabit Networking

By Sean Michael Kerner | Posted June 10, 2005

Until recently, Gigabit networking was a high-speed technology that came with a high price tag to match. However, like most technology advances, prices have come down and Gigabit networking products are now an affordable option for small offices and home offices.

What It Is
Wired networking is something that many of us take for granted. You plug your Ethernet cable into your PC or router and connect to other PCs and servers, and it usually works at a reasonable speed. For most of us today that speed is 100 Mbps, though there are still plenty of networks running on the old 10 Mbps standard. Gigabit networking offers the promise of speeds that are 10 times (or 100 times in the case of 10Mbps) faster — coming in at a whopping 1024 Mbps.

When Gigabit networking first hit the scene, it was touted as a solution for high-end digital media creation as well as enterprise IT environments. With the increased storage capacities and needs of today's bandwidth and media-intensive applications, the benefits of Gigabit networking are much wider. A faster network offers a myriad of benefits ranging from faster file server access, faster backup capability, faster networked media center performance, better performance for a local VoIP network and better performance overall for anything you've got inside your Gigabit network LAN.

What You Need: Gigabit NIC
There are a number of things that you need to set up a Gigabit network. The first and most fundamental unit of networking is the Network Interface Card (NIC). The NIC is what your Ethernet cable plugs into and is what helps to determine network speed. Many cards installed today are known as "10/100 NICs" that is they will interoperate at either 10 Mbps or 100 Mbps depending on the other machines, routers, hubs and/or switches on the network. A Gigabit NIC in contrast is labeled as a 10/100/1000 NIC and will interoperate with 10 Mbps, 100 Mbps and one Gbps networks based on the same criteria.

New "business class" PCs and high-end workstations are now routinely equipped with Gigabit NICs. If you happen to be purchasing a new PC now and you're not sure what the NIC speed is, be sure to ask if you can get a Gigabit NIC installed as part of the purchase to help "future proof" your PC.

Those of you with older equipment can also benefit from a simple retrofit of a 10/100/1000 NIC, which can be more expensive than a 10/100 NIC. If you shop around, you'll likely find a few Gigabit NICs that cost only 10-to-20 percent more than their slower 10/100 cousins.

PC Hardware: (Almost) Everyone Can Benefit
Gigabit networking involves transferring a heck of a lot of data through a PC. So much data in fact that many older PCs don't have the capacity to fully recognize Gigabit speed. In fact, one of the arguments often heard around Gigabit networking is that most people never actually achieve speeds of one Gbps because of hardware issues.

Powerful 64 bit PCs (typically high-end workstations like Apple's PowerMac G5) have wider system buses to take full advantage of Gigabit capabilities. Higher-end 32-bit PCs (for example a Pentium IV 3.3 MHz with HyperThreading) with PCI Express (a second generation I/O interface) will also come closer to taking full advantage of Gigabit's capabilities.

That said, older PCs can also benefit from Gigabit networking. Practically speaking, there are plenty of older PCs in use and not everyone should or will upgrade all their PCs at the same time. You don't have to be running the latest, greatest, best hardware to benefit, though older PCs will not likely use the full capability of Gigabit networking. For example, one Gigabit NIC manufacturer (D-Link) lists the minimum system requirement of its product as the following: "Desktop PC with 150 MHz Processor."

We tested the D-Link DGE-530T Gigabit NIC on "older" PCs (including Pentium MMX 200 MHz and Pentium III 500 MHz) and typically saw speed increases of 80-150 percent over the existing 10/100 NIC.

Cables: Cat Calls
You can add Gigabit networking using your existing cabling infrastructure. That is, with a Gigabit NIC installed in your network's PC, the same cable that you were using for your 10/100 NICs will work and will now provide up to 1000 Mbps. Cables are often overlooked as root causes for network sluggishness, and when dealing with Gigabit networks their quality is even more important.

Most of the Ethernet cable in use today is either Cat 5 or Cat5e. Generally speaking, Cat5e is a better choice than Cat5 for Gigabit Ethernet, though either one will work. Cat 6 is also an option (not a requirement) when it comes to Gigabit networks, though I personally have not found Cat6 cables to offer any better speeds than equivalent quality Cat5e cables (even though Cat6 is almost always more expensive).

Switches, Hubs and Routers
Unless you're connecting two PCs together directly, you're going to need either a Gigabit-capable router/hub and/or switch. From a practical point of view there are currently very few price-competitive Gigabit routers on the market. Switches are another story. D-Link, Linksys, SMC and Netgear have switches that are in the sub-$100 price range. Just like with 10/100 switches, Gigabit switches will interoperate with lower speed siblings on the same network, so you don't have to replace all your NICs if you don't want to. Auto-sensing ports — a key Gigabit switch feature — automatically determine the speed of the connected PC and deal with it appropriately.

Gigabit Networking: Is It for You?
New consumer-oriented products as well as lower price points make Gigabit networking a viable option for many people. For the price of a few new NICs and a switch, you could potentially increase the speed of your network by 1000 percent. Though as mentioned, not everyone will fully benefit or achieve full Gigabit speeds with their networks, but almost all will see a network performance improvement.

If you're buying a new PC, NIC or switch anyway, why not pay the (small) premium and get the fastest standard possible? If you've already got an existing network, it's a question of whether the investment is worth the performance benefit you'll gain. As time progresses though, Gigabit networks will likely become pervasive across a wide variety of network environments. Back in the mid-to-late 90s, 100 Mbps networks surpassed 10 Mbps networks when 10/100 equipment became more affordable. History is likely to repeat itself as prices for 10/100/1000 network equipment fall and Gigabit networks become the de facto standard. You can upgrade now, or you can upgrade later — the choice is yours.

Adapted from PracticallyNetworked.com, part of the EarthWeb.com Network.

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