Speed Test: The Myth of Gigabit Ethernet

The basics of networking connections are relatively easy to grasp. As I’ve said, the speeds of gigabit Ethernet beat fast Ethernet and Wi-Fi, but wireless-N connections top wireless-G and fast Ethernet, and fast Ethernet outpaces wireless-G.

But knowing which standards are theoretically faster than the others doesn’t mean that you’ll fully reap the benefits. Stepping up to a snazzy new wireless-N router doesn’t guarantee that your transfer speeds from connected PC to connected PC will suddenly jump tenfold. There’s maximum throughput and there’s reality. Here’s why the two are different:

First off, all devices within a network have to support the standard your network uses. And figuring out the difference between a gigabit port and a fast Ethernet port on a desktop or laptop, for example, isn’t something you can do by sight. The same goes for wireless connectivity: If you’re using a wireless-G laptop to connect to a wireless-N router (or, for that matter, pulling down files from a wireless-G-connected laptop using a gigabit-connected desktop), guess what? Your speeds will be constrained to the slowest connection in the chain.

That means that when you’re upgrading your network, you’re going to want to attack all of your slower devices at once in order to benefit most from a switch-up in speed categories. Here’s why: Let’s assume that you’re connecting a gigabit-friendly desktop PC to a gigabit router, back out to a gigabit-friendly desktop PC. If you’re transferring files off of a networked hard drive to your system’s desktop, are they going to rush over at a speed of 125 megabytes per second? Highly unlikely.

In this case, the bottleneck is your system itself. Unless you’re rocking a RAID setup or a fancy RAM drive, the two hard drives between systems simply can’t read and write the data fast enough to make full use of your networking setup.

So what good is gigabit? What does it really take to fill the pipe for the various connections I’ve mentioned? Stay tuned: I’ll be covering these questions — and the D-Link technologies that can make them possible — in subsequent posts.

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