Five years ago, 16Gb Fibre Channel was the go-to for high-performance data networks in creative facilities. It outperformed Ethernet networking, delivering the throughput and reliability that editors and facility owners needed.
While Fibre Channel has continued to improve – new installations are now 32Gb – the fact is that Ethernet speed has improved more quickly, offering higher speeds at more affordable prices.
The rise of Ethernet
In the time it’s taken Fibre Channel to creep from 2Gb to 32Gb, accessible Ethernet connectivity has jumped from 1Gb to 10Gb, 50Gb or even 100Gb, with talk of 200Gb being possible in certain environments (though probably overkill for many post houses). While higher-speed Ethernet connections used to be reserved for network-to-network connections, Jigsaw24 technical specialist Neal Kemsley says, “We’re now seeing vendors like ATTO, Intel, Mellanox and Chelsio produce networking cards designed to sit in high-end workstations and servers. They attach using Thunderbolt 3 technology, meaning you can take those high speeds and apply them to client-to-network, server-to-network and server-to-storage connections.”
Innovations like this mean that Ethernet can now fulfil more of your connectivity requirements than before, but they also illustrate another key advantage: Ethernet is supported by a broad range of vendors who are pushing the protocol forward, even at the high end of the market.
“There are only one or two manufacturers left who are actually making Fibre Channel-based products, so you’re very much at their mercy when it comes to pricing, availability and the direction they decide to move the technology forward in,” says Neal. “Ethernet is the strongest contender when it comes to offering a choice of vendors, and a spectrum of prices and performance options.”
In fact, Ethernet is the preferred networking technology for many shared storage vendors including Editshare, Ardis, Avid and Rohde & Schwarz, who announced a deliberate move away from Fibre Channel ahead of IBC 2019. It was a long time ago that Avid transitioned to Ethernet for all their shared storage offerings. Avid’s powerhouse NEXIS | E5 or high-speed NEXIS | E2 SSD units connect to the switch via 40GbE connections.
“One of the factors pushing people towards higher and higher speed Ethernet is the increased presence of SSD and NVMe storage,” says Neal. “That storage is expensive, and one doesn’t want to invest in it only to find that one can’t take advantage of it because the network is the equivalent of bits of wet string.”
So, do you need to start looking at 100GbE?
“A lot of people will say that if you’re doing ‘entry level’ UHD and 4K work, a 10Gb network will be sufficient, but as with most technologies, the devil is in the details,” says Neal. “Simply asking whether you’re doing 4K isn’t sufficient to determine whether or not you’ll need this level of technology. There are several different levels of complexity and scale within UHD and 4K formats and workflows, and if you’re working with RAW footage, uncompressed UHD or 4K, or even multiple streams of complex, uncompressed HD footage, faster networks are de rigueur.”
Even if you don’t think you’ll be maxing out a 25GbE or 100GbE connection in the immediate future, opting for it now could be a canny investment.
“Often, installing a higher speed Ethernet network than you planned won’t make a massive difference to a project, cost-wise, and it futureproofs your facility to a certain degree,” says Neal. “But don’t forget that you can split out a 100Gb connection into two lanes of 50Gb or four lanes of 25Gb. Installing a 40Gb network and splitting it into four lines of 10Gb gives you far more flexibility and scalability than simply installing a 10GbE network would. Newer 100GbE switches are built with multiple speed options for downgrading and backwards compatibility purposes, so taking advantage of this kind of flexibility is easier than you might think.”
The hardware: network interface cards (NICs)
These cards allow high-end workstations to connect directly to the network. If you’re using an Apple-based workstation, it may be that your computer’s only connections are Thunderbolt 3, in which case you’ll need to use ATTO ThunderLink cards to connect to an Ethernet network. ATTO make a range of cards, each optimised for different generations of Thunderbolt and speed of Ethernet.
ATTO’s FastFrame PCIe NICs are an excellent option for non-Apple workstations, servers, or datacentre arrays; both their ThunderLink and FastFrame ranges are qualified by Avid for use in NEXIS installations. For non-Avid workflows, we’d also recommend Mellanox’s ConnectX range, which offers single and dual port options for network speeds between 20Gb and 100Gb.
The hardware: cabling
One of the off-putting things about moving to 40GbE or 100GbE is that your cabling does become more complicated. In order to get QSFP sockets that allow you to split your high-speed connection into lanes, you’ll need better-made cables than you’re used to, and you won’t be able to assemble manually.
There are myriad copper and fibre optic cables available, and you may need to invest in a combination. For example, Twinax copper cabling maxes out at between 5-7 metres in length, so it’s useful for connecting your storage server to an Ethernet switch inside your machine room, but for longer distances you’ll need short range multimode or long range single mode fibre optic cabling, with very specialist termination points to ensure you maintain top speeds all the way to your destination.
Luckily, we have the expertise to help you design your cable run, and source and install the appropriate hardware for your needs. Our engineers all come from within the creative industries, so have experience working with high-end media networks, and can spec up a solution that’s perfectly tailored to your needs.
The hardware: network switches
Our favourite Swiss Army Knife high speed Ethernet switch is the Mellanox SN2010, which offers 18 10/25GbE ports and four 40/100GbE ports. It’s a great investment for smaller facilities who are looking for a versatile, future-proof switch that will be able to scale with them.
If you’re working in a solely Avid environment, they’ve qualified a range of Dell switches covering speeds up to 40GbE for use with their NEXIS storage. For non-Avid users, we recommend Mellanox, but have also performed successful installations using Brocade’s IX range. Get in touch with the team on the details below to find out which option or combination is best for your network.
To sum up…
If you’re thinking of upgrading your Ethernet network, opting for 40Gb or 100Gb connectivity over 10Gb is a great way to future proof your facility for relatively little extra cost. It’ll also mean you have the necessary speed to take advantage of high-speed SSD and NVMe storage, or to engage with high-end shared storage systems like those from OpenDrives, Rohde & Schwarz’s Spycer or Avid’s NEXIS range. If you’re not using the full capacity of your network straight away, you can split these high-bandwidth connections into multiple lanes, to increase your flexibility while still getting better-than-10Gb performance.
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