As technology marches forward new challenges arise that were not previously an issue. Consider as mankind moved from walking to horseback we cleared trails where there was once brush covered paths. As we transitioned from horseback to carriages those paths needed to become dirt roads, and the carriages added suspension systems. With the move from carriages to automobiles, we further smoothed the surface traveled by adding gravel. As the automobiles moved faster, we added an adhesive to the gravel creating paved roads. With the introduction of highways, we required engineered roads with multi-layered surfaces. Each generation reduced the variability in the road surface by utilizing new techniques that enabled greater speed and performance. The same holds true for computer networks.

Over the past three decades as we transitioned from 10Mbps to 25Gbps Ethernet we’ve required many innovations to support these greater speeds. The latest of these being Forward Error Correction (FEC). The intent of FEC is to reduce the bit error rate (BER) as the cable length increases. In 2017 we saw the ratification of the IEEE 25GbE specification which provides two unique methods of FEC. There is BASE-R FEC (also known as Firecode) and RS-FEC (known also as Reed Solomon). Both of these FEC algorithms introduce additional network latency as the signal is decoded, BASE-R is about 80 nanoseconds while RS-FEC is about 250 nanoseconds. The complexities don’t end here though, it turns out there are three different Direct Attach (DA) cable types with varying levels of quality, from good, to best we have:

  • CA-25G-L: up to 5m, requires RS-FEC
  • CA-25G-S: up to 3m, lower loss, requires either RS-FEC or BASE-R FEC
  • CA-25G-N: up to 3m, even lower loss, can work with RS-FEC, BASE-R FEC, or no FEC

But wait there’s more, if you order now we’ll throw in auto-negotiation (AN) and link training (LT) as both are required by the 25GbE IEEE standard (10GbE didn’t need these tricks). So what does AN actually negotiate? Two things, link speed and which type, if any, FEC will be utilized. It should be noted that existing 25GbE NICs that have been on the market likely only support one type of FEC. As for LT, it helps to improve the quality of the 25GbE link itself. It turns out though that the current generation of 25GbE switches came out prior to AN being worked out so support is at best poor to mixed. Often manual switch and adapter configuration are required. Oh, and did I mention that optical modules don’t support AN/LT? Well, they don’t, but some will support short links with no FEC.

So where does this leave people who want to deploy 25GbE? You need to be careful that both your network switch and server NICs will work well together. We strongly advise that you do a proof of concept prior to a full deployment. Not all 25G server NICs do both AN/LT because their chips (ASICs) were designed and fabricated prior to the completion of the IEEE specification for 25GbE last year. Solarflare’s 25GbE X2522 server NICs which debut next month include support for all the above, in fact, when initially powered up they will begin by:

  • First looking at cable, is it SFP or SFP28?
  • If it’s SFP28 it will attempt AN/LT, then 25G no AN/LT, then 10G
  • If it’s a 25G link, then it will try and detect which FEC is being used by switch

Additionally, the server administrator can manually override the defaults and select AN/LT and the FEC type and setting (auto, on, off).

I grew up in New York, and remember listening to Sy Sims on TV say “an educated consumer is our best customer…”

P.S. I’d like to give a special thanks to Martin Porter, Solarflare’s VP of Engineering, for pulling all this together into a few slides.