Friday, November 16, 2007

Gigabit Ethernet and specmanship

An increasing number of office products are now boasting of a new advanced feature: compatibility with Gigabit Ethernet. This strikes me as a case of utter “specmanship,” a feature of no real use.

Gigabit Ethernet (also known in its usual setup as 1000BaseT) is a version of Ethernet that is (in theory) ten times faster than everyday 100BaseT Ethernet. It was made a standard in 1998 (IEEE 802.3 for international standards buffs), and it is slowly growing in importance. The original intention was to use the protocol for high-capacity backbone networks, where massive amounts of data were being transferred between servers and network switches. Soon, some desktop computers became Gigabit Ethernet-compatible. This setup is especially useful for streaming video across a network. Gigabit Ethernet requires special network routers, hubs, and cables, which can also work with lower Ethernet speeds.

The real issue, as we see it, is that printers and scanners work just fine with regular Ethernet. You can deliver data far faster as it is than any printer or scanner can handle it – the limiting factor is not network speed or processor power but the mechanical speed of the hardware. We can imagine that some very high-speed digital printers doing variable data printing might get an advantage from the boost in network speed, but as it stands, no regular office equipment will run one bit faster by adding a Gigabit Ethernet link.

We see Gigabit Ethernet as a classic “check-off” spec. Big government and some business buyers require that equipment be able to check off compliance with a number of requirements, some of them not really relevant to the functions of the machine. Sales staffs need such features just to get in the door. Gigabit Ethernet is harmless, but it adds nothing to productivity for most offices.

What's next? 10-Gigabit Ethernet? Or maybe you'd prefer 100-Gigabit Ethernet?

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