Ethernet Celebrates Its 40th Anniversary

As of May 23rd, Ethernet, that ubiquitous LAN technology, will celebrate its 40th year of existence.  That event was celebrated April 2-4 at the Ethernet Technology Summit in Santa Clara.  The Summit is hosted each year by Conference ConCepts Inc. and sponsored by leading networking companies like Cisco, Dell, Comcast, Ixia, Huawei, Cadence, napatech, Tektronix, Synopsys and Big Switch Networks.  It is a relatively small conference with only a few hundred participants but well attended by the gurus of networking.  I was happy to be there to hear the latest about this all-present networking technology.

Ethernet, in case you forgot, was developed by Robert Metcalfe and his associates at Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in May of 1973.  What they invented was a bus topology local area network using a coax cable medium and an access method called carrier sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD) and an initial data rate of 2.94 Mb/s. Ethernet was amongst a number of other competing LAN developments in the early days but went on to become an IEEE standard.  The initial standard designated 802.3 was published in 1985 and featured two coax sizes and a fiber medium option with a data rate of 10 Mb/s.  Bob Metcalfe went on to found 3Com to bring Ethernet to market with the support of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Intel and Xerox.  The result was rapid success.

Ethernet has continued to be enhanced with high data rates, new transmission media, and a switched topology that improves access and net data rate.  We now have 10 Mb/s and 100 Mb/s twisted pair versions as well as 1 Gb/s, 10 Gb/s and 100 Gb/s versions with lots of medium options. Furthermore there have been some amazing enhancements like Carrier Ethernet that puts the technology into the MAN and WAN categories of networking for some applications.  And it was apparent from the conference that more enhancements are on the way.

During a break at the exhibits, several pioneers of Ethernet were honored.  These were David Boggs whole worked with Metcalfe on the original version of Ethernet, Ronald Crane who helped with the first 10 Mb/s version, tat Lam who worked on the original version and early 10 Mb/s equipment and Geoffery Thompson who did a considerable standards work for IEEE, TIA and the ISO.  Unbelievably, following a short awards ceremony, everyone sang happy birthday to Ethernet.  A sheet cake was cut and served.  Another Ethernet celebration is coming soon as well.  It is hosted by the Ethernet Innovation Summit one May 22 and 23 at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA.

The first day of the conference was pretty much devoted to a seminar on software-defined networking (SDN) and OpenFlow.  SDN is a new addition to Ethernet that permits data centers and other users to separate the control of a network from the actual physical implementation.  It allows switching configurations to be programmed to optimize the flow of data.  OpenFlow is software that implements SDN.  SDN appears to be a major trend as it helps address the networking issues involved with virtualization and the cloud.

Carrier Ethernet was also a major discussion topic.  A development of the Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF), it is a collection of hardware and software that makes Ethernet, a LAN technology, suitable for use in metro area networks (MAN) and wide area networks (WAN).  It lets carrier businesses use low cost Ethernet systems to offer data services with all the operation, administration and Maintenance (OAM) features and benefits, including QoS, of traditional carrier networks like Sonet/SDH.

As for market development, the adoption and roll out of 10 Gb/s Ethernet (10GE) continues as more data centers upgrade. The copper/twisted pair version of 10GE is by far the most popular because of its lower cost than the fiber optic versions.   In the data centers cable lengths are typically less than 30 meters and this range is ideal for 10GE. However, there is now substantial adoption of 40GE and 100GE versions as the data deluge continues.  40GE and 100GE installations are optical links.

One very interesting presentation was by John D’Ambrosia of Dell and the Ethernet Alliance introducing the IEEE’s latest study group to develop a 400 Gb/s version of Ethernet.  With continuing pressures from the big networking companies like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and Facebook, even faster data centers are needed to handle the fixed and mobile demand for more streaming video.  The 400 GE version will be optical in nature and could use a mix of technologies such as ten 40GE links or wavelengths, eight parallel 56 Gb/s links or wavelengths,  some form of optical PAM or 16QAM, or a single fiber  using the DP-QPSK format now a de facto standard in the long haul optical transport networks (OTN).  While many question the 400GE effort saying that the study group should go directly to one terabit (1Tb/s), most agreed that 400GE was more practical, affordable and achievable in the short term. It is estimated that it will take about four years to sort out the issues and develop a final standard by 2017.

We all use Ethernet every day.  It is truly the one single networking technology that has survived the extreme pace of technological development by continuously reinventing itself and morphing into just what is needed.  Today’s Ethernet is not what Bob Metcalfe invented but it a dynamic technology that seems to evolve annually.  It is already used in storage area networks (SAN) and is now moving into metro and long haul networking space.  Furthermore it is becoming the core of industrial and automation networking.  In addition, look for it in future automobiles as a way to simplify the complex multi-interface networks now used.  Long live Ethernet.

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