Ethernet turns 30

Proving early critics wrong, its future looks brighter than ever

Congratulations, Ethernet. You've just turned 30, you've exceeded your parents' wildest expectations, you are well liked, and you're thousands of times faster than you were when you were young. Not bad!

Ethernet networking, formerly maligned as an inferior, dead-end technology that would never amount to anything, today dominates the enterprise as never before. But as it continually enables new applications and capabilities, Ethernet may even push beyond enterprise campuses into Metropolitan Area Networks and last-mile applications.

First described in a 1973 memo from Robert "Bob" Metcalfe to his colleagues at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), Ethernet is the quintessential example of an open, public-domain technology that thrived, as evidenced by almost universal adoption and the buildup of an ecosystem of low-cost products and developers. Simply put, Ethernet is a shared-media network.

David Liddle, the Xerox executive who agreed six years later to cheaply license Metcalfe's Ethernet idea to all comers, says the benefits of an open standard, around which anyone could develop, were obvious from the start. "We knew even in PARC that it was going to be much cheaper and easier to get started with and usable over a much wider range than everything else that was out there," he says. Many competing proprietary protocols have fallen by the wayside over the years, most notably IBM's Token Ring.

"It was a bit novel to have an open standard and try to build a business around it," says Hal Varian, dean of the School of Information Management at University of California, Berkeley. Varian notes that Xerox had hoped an open standard would stimulate the market for high-end workstations and networked products. "It was a bold move …. In order to create a viable industry, you had to have it be open."

Success in the enterprise

That bold move has paid off big-time for the computing industry and for enterprises. Under the watchful eye of the IEEE 802.3 standard bodies, Ethernet technologies have matured through many upgrades -- adding switching and IP capabilities, layers of standardization  such as QoS (Quality of Service) specifications, and accelerating from 10Mbps to 100Mbps to speeds that reach 10Gbps and beyond.

With low-cost components, ubiquitous adoption (it's now a checklist item, often built straight onto motherboards), interoperability, and simplicity (the Ethernet protocols follow the model of how humans talk around the dinner table), Ethernet has attracted more developers at every stage. The technology has now blazed the trail for another generation of innovation in networked capabilities.

"Never underestimate Ethernet," says Tom Lagatta, a vice president at networking semiconductor vendor Broadcom in Irvine, Calif. "You cannot question 250 million installed ports. There is just such a huge sunk investment. And you just can't ever assume that [Ethernet's] out of gas, because the technologists continue to find ways to make it go faster, like digital signal processing and higher-quality cable."

"The industry has stopped looking for an alternative to Ethernet," agrees Intel's vice president of platform networking, Tim Dunn. "[The industry has] started looking for ways to enhance [Ethernet's] capabilities and move it into new areas." Dunn notes that unlike competing technologies such as ATM, Ethernet does not require forklift upgrades to add new capabilities, so it enables enterprises to mix and match components and upgrade their networks incrementally to meet demand from new applications.

Gigabit Ethernet will drive new capabilities

The foundation for many future enterprise capabilities -- from networked storage to video and VoIP -- is being laid today by the accelerating migration to gigabit capability and in some cases even 10GbE (10 Gigabit Ethernet) connections.

"The deployment of Gigabit Ethernet is just starting at the desktop level right now," says IDC senior analyst Sean Lavey. He notes that many enterprises are buying machines with gigabit ports but not yet putting gigabit switches in place to activate them. He expects new applications such as videoconferencing and storage access will justify the cost of the switches.

"Gig to the desktop is getting a lot of buzz," agrees Cisco's Ethernet access group senior vice president, Larry Birenbaum. He continues to say that the technology is already widely used in server connectivity and that some enterprise cores are already embracing 10GbE technology.

Broadcom'sLagatta predicts that next-generation Ethernet will enable denser, higher-performance datacenters as Gigabit-switch costs fall below $20 a port. "The backplane of the blade server is Ethernet …. You basically remove all rotating brown matter," Lagatta explains. Environments where servers and storage are separated and connected with iSCSI and Ethernet -- rather than proprietary backplanes -- reduce temperature control issues and enable greater densities.

Indeed, networked storage across the enterprise is one of the promises of next-generation Ethernet. The idea is that migrating from Fibre Channel to Ethernet-compatible NAS with iSCSI storage interfaces will lower costs, reduce the latency of access to remote storage, and even enable real-time backups.

"It's not necessarily a Fibre Channel replacement, but Ethernet will bring a lot of new storage capabilities into the mainstream and make them globally available," says Intel's Dunn. "If you have a one-gig connection at your desktop, [you] can do some cool things with storage aggregation and virtualization."

One of these cool things is the ability to reduce storage requirements for individual machines. "People who are anchored to their desk are going to have low storage or no storage .... That's where it's heading," Broadcom'sLagatta says. He adds that many major OEMs such as IBM and HP are betting heavily on the Ethernet-enabled NAS concept. "You're going to start seeing all sorts of things emerging in the corporate network, like the diskless client."

IDC's Lavey is a bit more sanguine. "You're starting to see the first phase of iSCSI come into the market, transporting block-level [as opposed to file-level] storage over Ethernet," he explains. Lavey sees a lot of enterprises "playing with the technology versus deploying [it] in any kind of mass way."

Beyond the enterprise

With its domination of enterprise LANs and campus networks all but complete, some see a big opportunity for Ethernet to enable wider-area, end-to-end capabilities by bringing IP-based capabilities to MANs (Metropolitan Area Networks) and Ethernet dial-tone to the home. Despite the best efforts of upstart Ethernet-based carriers such as Yipes and Cogent Communications, MAN backbones, which connect urban areas, are still dominated by ATM and Sonet ring technologies, originally designed for voice applications.

"You could actually start to see Ethernet-mesh emerge in the metro rings," says Broadcom'sLagatta. Such an architecture would be lower cost, more redundant, and fault tolerant, he says. But the major US carriers are going slow, trying to wrap Ethernet services inside their Sonet envelope in order to avoid wholesale upgrades at a time when they're squeezed for funds and wary of regulators giving competitors access to their networks.

And finally, it's only a matter of time before the telecommunication carriers find a way to deploy pure, native Ethernet connections all the way to the home via a combination of fiber, Cat 5 cabling, and 10BaseS Ethernet over copper twisted pair (as is already happening in Asia). At that point, enterprises will be able to provide all kinds of interesting Ethernet-based, end-to-end applications, such as video. Say Intel's Dunn, "The raw throughput [of high-speed Ethernet] gives you service capabilities you never had before."

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