What Is This Thing They Call Ethernet?

Dec. 9, 2002
Ethernet was invented in a memo that I wrote on May 22, 1973 at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Dave Boggs and I built our first experimental Ethernet in 1974 to connect dozens of Xerox Alto personal computers and their laser printer (EARS)....

Ethernet was invented in a memo that I wrote on May 22, 1973 at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. Dave Boggs and I built our first experimental Ethernet in 1974 to connect dozens of Xerox Alto personal computers and their laser printer (EARS). Our "ether" ran up to a mile using carrier-sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD) at 2.94 Mbits/s over tapped half-inch thick coaxial cable.

I founded 3Com Corp. in 1979 to serve what I predicted would become a huge Ethernet-compatible market. It began that year with the cooperation of DEC (now HP), Intel, and Xerox. 3Com shipped the first PC Ethernet card (running at the IEEE standard speed of 10 Mbits/s) in September 1982. 3Com took off after that, went public in 1984, and today is a billion-dollar networking company, one of many selling Ethernet-compatible products.

Today's Ethernet greatly differs from the systems that we built in 1974 and 1982. Now it runs at 10 Mbits/s, but also at 100, 1000, and 10,000 Mbits/s over twisted pairs and optical fibers. But there hasn't been an interesting collision in years. Ethernet also appears as 802.11 running 11 Mbits/s over thin air, which is ironic because Ethernet was derived in 1973 from the Alohanet packet radio network. I coined the name Ethernet, so I'm delighted the term is still used. But it's reasonable to ask what Ethernet has become, really, after all these years. It's certainly not the CSMA/CD access method that we patented—and don't worry, the patent has long since expired.

Well, Ethernet still sometimes appears as CSMA/CD. Plus, Ethernet is what we call the standard packet format carrying Internet packets through all these forms of networking hardware. But I think that Ethernet has really become a business model. It's not the old vertically integrated computer monopoly model that IBM once was, or the Cisco-Intel-Microsoft behemoth that dominates much of computing today. It's not even the Open Source model nipping at their heels.

The Ethernet business model is created from de jure industry standards. It's based on many competitors that don't give their implementations away but own their implementations of these standards. Ethernet follows the idea of striving to sell interoperability among competing products. It's based on fierce competition using availability, price, quality, and performance. Also, it's built on the rapid evolution of the standards with emphasis on backward and forward compatibility. Now thousands of companies operate under this Ethernet business model, which explains why the technology keeps evolving and proliferating. They say, "Never bet against Ethernet."

That's what this thing is that they call Ethernet—a business model. Buy some today.

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