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.