Why 2.5GbE is a win for tech lovers and SMEs
Gigabit ethernet has been around since 1997, which means it is now old enough to order a beer on its own everywhere in the world. It's more than time for an upgrade.
Let's start with why you need speeds greater than gigabit:
— ISPs are starting to roll-out >1Gb/s speeds and modems that have SFP+/or 2.5GbE ports on them.
— New Wi-Fi 6E Access Points can handle a lot of simultaneous high-speed clients and offer throughput well in excess of gigabit like this one from Unifi.
— Everything that relates to fast storage like:
> Copying data internally, if you have a NAS (Network Attached Storage).
> High-speed or low latency block storage for VMs (virtual machines) in your infrastructure.
> For the more creative type, video editing from shared storage (with multiple editors or rendering stations) is very intensive on network bandwidth.
Of course, with how old 1000BASE-T (the complete name of 1GbE) is and the ever-growing need for high-speed networking in the enterprise, there have been quite a few standards since the debut of gigabit ethernet.
Let's go over a few of them that would qualify as a suitable upgrade path:
— 10GbE (or 10GBASE-T): this option uses our usual rj45 (technically 8p8c) that we all know and have grown to like in the last few decades.
We have seen the rise of decently affordable NICs in the last years as you can now find some reliable models based on Aquantia chips under the 100-euro mark.
Cabling is not that expensive if distances are kept under 100m as simple cat6 will do the job and even amazon offers great deals on cat7 cabling on short runs. Where problems arise is when it comes to switches as they are still easily over 400 to 500 euro if you need more than 1 or 2 10GbE ports or even basic management features.
Used enterprise hardware tends to be very inefficient as it is generally based on old chips and often doesn't support what's known as "multigig" (2.5 and 5GbE).
— SFP+/QSFP: now we're adventuring ourselves in the full-fledged enterprise world so brace yourself, we're going to have fun.
This option looks attractive at first glance as it is easy to find dirt cheap NICs (Network Interface Card) on eBay. QSFP NICs can be found for as low as 40-50 euros and SFP+ models are even cheaper.
The cabling doesn't seem unbearably expensive as fiber is often cheaper per meter than copper on long runs and if runs are kept short (think patch cables) there are some affordable DAC cables available. Seems is the term here as DAC cables rapidly rise in price above a few meters and fiber cables need very pricy transceivers (easily 25 euro for SFP+ and 45 for QSFP).
The switches are where it actually falls down as they are often impossible to find at a reasonable price, really loud and power hungry, or even worse, they use InfiniBand instead of the ethernet protocol.
On top of that, the SFP+ (10) and QSFP (40Gb/s) standards have been abandoned for a 25 and 100Gb/s model which leaves owners with no real upgrade path down the line.
So, in the end, switches are often the problem as it is still difficult to find any suitable option for a house or small office space without a dedicated server/network room.
But fear not, a new contender has recently entered the market in a run for the heart of enthusiasts looking for high-speed networking at an affordable price.
The 2.5GbE standard is designed to make the transition as smooth as possible. To do so, it enables you to reuse existing cat5e cabling as opposed to 10GbE that requires cat6 or even cat6a over long distances. And since rewiring can be costly both in time and money, this lowers the cost of entry in a significant way.
Using your currently installed wiring, 2.5GbE enables you to run even the latest wireless access points at full speed and take advantage of even the highest internet speeds available in most countries (as most offerings are capping around 2Gb/s maximum unless you're willing to splurge on an incredibly expensive enterprise-grade subscription).
On top of all that, the upgrade to 2.5GbE is very reasonable cost-wise as network cards can be found for under 50 euros both in PCIe and USB form. The existence of USB variants also makes it possible to enable any device equipped with an USB3.0 port to join the high-speed networking fun. Network switches are also becoming more widely spread and quite affordable like this one from D-Link or this one from TP-Link.
It is also starting to become the norm on medium and high-end desktop devices like thin-clients, OEM desktops or even off-the-shelf motherboards. This wide adoption leads to think that this standard is likely to stick around for a long enough time that it makes sense to upgrade.
All of this is why I believe that this new networking standard will be the best option for your next build, home lab, office, or any type of network upgrade on a budget.