Ethernet will keep accelerating, speeding up to 100Gbps (bits per second) in the next few years, the head of a standards study group said Wednesday.

A special study group of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) last Thursday agreed on a target for the next generation of the ubiquitous data networking technology. The 100Gbps version of Ethernet will be ten times faster than the current fastest type, 10-Gigabit Ethernet. Vendors as well as users represented in the group, including Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories and cable operator Comcast, see a need for that kind of speed down the road, said John D'Ambrosia, chair of the group. It will serve the needs of both enterprises and carriers, he said.

Ethernet was introduced more than 30 years ago and became popular as a 10Mbps system for enterprise LANs (Local Area Networks). Along the way, Fast Ethernet (100Mbps), Gigabit Ethernet and 10-Gigabit Ethernet have been added. Because each was standardised, many vendors have been able to compete and prices have been driven down. New Ethernet versions began life aggregating streams of packets from lower-speed connections and, in turn, were later aggregated into fatter pipes that used the latest high speed.

Video, high-performance computing, and the increasing demands of applications in data centres will require faster connections, said D'Ambrosia, who is also a scientist of components technology at high-end Ethernet switch vendor Force10 Networks. The study group was formed in July to decide what speed the IEEE should try to achieve in the next standard. Last Thursday, at an IEEE meeting in Dallas, 100Gbps achieved the required 75 per cent vote within the study group.

Other possible speeds were considered, including 40Gbps, 80Gbps and 120Gbps, but none of them won enough support. The group weighed the time and effort required to achieve a speed against how well it would meet the needs that exist when it becomes available, D'Ambrosia said.

Between that vote and 100Gbps Ethernet hitting the market, the IEEE needs to approve the formation of a working group that will then figure out how to achieve the higher speed. Judging from the development of earlier standards, D'Ambrosia said standard 100Gbps Ethernet products are likely to become available in late 2009 or early 2010.

The challenges this time will be similar to those in the past, only harder, he said. Among them are heat and power requirements and enabling faster communication among the chips inside networking equipment. Like other steps up in Ethernet speed, it is likely to appear first in gear that uses optical fibre. Getting it to work over copper wires will be harder than ever, D'Ambrosia said, but he wouldn't rule it out. The cycle never ends, he said.

"This will not be the last higher-speed study group," D'Ambrosia said. "We'll get this done and eventually there will be a push for another speed after this."