The Bottom Line on Gigabit Ethernet
The bottom line is that if you really want to cost justify pushing gigabit Ethernet to the desktop, you're almost certainly going to need to upgrade your PC base as well. If that's out of the question, you're probably better off waiting until your next PC mass upgrade and then putting gigabit in. But if you can afford to upgrade your client machines, putting in gigabit Ethernet makes a lot of sense...for some users. Even with today's low network and PC prices, there's simply no justification in bringing gigabit Ethernet to receptionists, typists, and the like. Instead, you should focus on the people who really can use it.
And exactly who are these people? The answer, as always, is to look at the applications and which users are utilizing the most bandwidth-intensive software. For example, if you're using desktop video conferencing, the executives who actually use it should get gigabit. Other areas that will almost certainly benefit from gigabit are those who regularly work with desktop publishing (DTP), CAD/CAM, accounting analysis, database analysis, or graphics software.
The performance difference for these users can be dramatic. For example, a PhotoShop 6 image that takes tens of seconds to come up on Fast Ethernet can pop to the screen in a second using gigabit Ethernet. When your massive data file users make frequent saves, the collective time savings can add up to more than an hour a day -- an impressive time and productivity savings no matter how your overall return on investment turns out.
As for the gigabit switches, you need to look for more than just maximum bang for the buck. A switch may offer you cheap ports, but if it delivers TCP/IP switching in software instead of via the application-specific integrated circuit (ASIC), you've got a switch with a built-in performance problem.
You should also look for features such as authentication server support that work with your existing authentication framework. 802.1q and 802.1p support, which respectively provide Virtual LAN (VLAN) and Layer 2 network traffic prioritizing for quality of service (QoS), are also important. And, as always, you'll want network management controls that you're comfortable with. Many switches, for example, now come with easy to use HTTP-based web interfaces, while others require you to know your way through a telnet character interface.
Concerns and all, though, one thing is definitely clear -- at these prices, it's time to get ready for gigabit Ethernet. Perhaps you can't afford it this year, but as PC speeds increase and users work with bigger and more data-intensive projects on their desktops, you can count on demands for gigabit next year in data-intensive departments like engineering and DTP. And while the preceding concerns or the current economy may not afford you the opportunity to implement gigabit right now, it's certainly time to start planning for its imminent arrival.