Wired for Success: How Did Ethernet Become the Backbone of Modern Connectivity?


Ethernet technology has become the backbone of modern communication and connectivity, connecting billions of devices to each other and the Internet. As we approach the 50th anniversary of Ethernet's founding, I am excited to kick off a blog series that explores the history of this groundbreaking technology, from its humble beginnings in 1973 to its current state-of-the-art speeds of 400 Gbps. This is the first blog in a series that will celebrate the anniversary and take you on a journey through the evolution of Ethernet. Join us as we explore its impact on the world of networking and beyond.

Ethernet defines wired computer networking technologies commonly used in Local Area Networks(LAN), Metropolitan Area Networks(MAN), and Wide Area Networks (WAN). It was commercially introduced in 1980 and first standardized in 1983 as IEEE 802.3. Since then, Ethernet has undergone numerous redefinitions and enhancements to support higher rates, a greater number of nodes, and longer link distances. Ethernet is a technology that has stood the test of time, and one of its most remarkable features has been its ability to maintain backward compatibility. Ethernet’s strength as a technology lies in its high-level standardization, which provides a strong and reliable foundation for networking. Despite being defined at a high level, the standard is flexible enough to allow for innovation and further development, ensuring that Ethernet remains relevant in an ever-changing digital landscape.

Ethernet's impact on modern communication and connectivity cannot be overstated. In fact, the Internet was built on top of Ethernet, which has become the ultimate platform for innovation for a wide range of applications and services. As previously stated, Ethernet's high-level standardization strikes a fine balance between specification and openness, making it a flexible technology that can evolve over time. This fine balance has created a rich ecosystem that has largely replaced competing wired LAN technologies like Token Ring, FDDI, and ATM over time. As a result, Ethernet has become the go-to technology for connecting devices and enabling communication across local, metropolitan, and wide area networks.

Ethernet’s origins can be traced back to 1973 when Bob (Robert) Metcalfe, then a PhD candidate at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), was inspired by ALOHAnet, which he had studied. Metcalfe developed the concept for Ethernet as part of his dissertation, and in 1975, he along with David Boggs, Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson, filed a patent application. In 1976, following the implementation of the system at PARC, Metcalfe and Boggs authored a groundbreaking paper entitled "Ethernet: Distributed Packet-Switching for Local Computer Networks." The paper described a multipoint data communication system with collision detection. The world's first Ethernet cable reportedly sat in a room full of printers and copiers at Xerox's PARC subsidiary in Palo Alto.

Ethernet History where it all started

The first iteration of Ethernet, known as 10BASE5 or thick Ethernet, was standardized back in 1982. as 10BASE5 aka. It used a thick and stiff coaxial cable as a shared medium, with vampire taps (slang for transceivers) drilled into the core of the cable. Network interface cards (NICs) where connected to these transceivers with a D-type connector. In the late 1980s, 10BASE5 was replaced by 10BASE2, or thin Ethernet,  which used a much cheaper and thinner coaxial cable. When deploying thin Ethernet,  how many of you remember the satisfying click of connecting the Ethernet NIC cards to the BNC connector with a BNC-T splitter, ensuring that the Ethernet segment stayed intact?

However, the original Ethernet standards of 10BASE5 and 10BASE2 were destined to become obsolete, and the next phase of the Ethernet evolution was a significant leap forward, as it defined the use of twisted pair cable. Since early 2000s, Category 5 (Cat 5) twisted pair cable for computer networks became the standard cable to be used in such networks, providing performance of up to 100Mhz and making it suitable for most upcoming variants of Ethernet such as 10BASE-T, 100BASE-TXand1000BASE-T. The increased demand for high-speed networking, along with the low cost of Cat 5 cabling, led to the rise in popularity of 802.11 wireless networks (Wi-Fi). Additionally, the introduction of the Power over Ethernet (PoE) standard in 2003 made it possible to deploy remote networking devices like Wi-Fi access points and IP cameras, in areas where power outlets were scarce, as network devices could receive power and data over the same Ethernet cable. 

Ethernet History Timeline

Below are a few highlights in the historical timeline of Ethernet:

  • In 1980, several individuals contributed to the transition from the 2.94 Mbit/s to the upgraded 10 Mbit/s protocol, which became available in the market that same year.
  • In 1980, Intel was one of the originators of the X-Wire Ethernet standard, along with Xerox and Digital Equipment Corp. The “DIX” specification (Digital, Intel, and Xerox) varied slightly from the IEEE 802.3 definition of Ethernet, which was formally approved in 1983.
  • Ethernet was commercially introduced in 1980 and first standardized in 1983 as IEEE 802.3
  • In early 1990s, Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) products began to appear. The IEEE 802.3u standard for 100BASE-T was ratified in 1995.
  • In 1994, the IEEE finalized the 10BASE-F standard for Ethernet over fiber.
  • In 1996, Gigabit Ethernet followed Fast Ethernet as the new standard for running Ethernet at 1G (1000Mbps) over fiber.
  • The standard was firmed up in 1998, and the 1000BASE-T standard for copper was finalized in 1999.
  • In 2003, the IEEE 803.3af defined PoE capabilities of up to 15.4 Watts.

In 1996, startup networking companies like Extreme Networks, emerged and started building Ethernet products. Extreme Networks made history as the first vendor to ship Gigabit Ethernet Layer 3 switches. Four years later, in 2000, the company filed an informative RFC around Ethernet Automatic Protection Switching (EAPS) known as EAPS RFC 3619. This RFC defined a mechanism for Ethernet ring topology networks for both LAN and MAN deployments to increase availability and robustness. Ethernet rings built using EAPS offered resilience comparable to what SONET rings provided at the time, resulting in significant cost savings for service providers and MAN deployments. In addition to lower cost, it had fewer constraints and could provide sub-500 millisecond failover-times. This milestone cemented Ethernet’s position as the default transport technology in many use cases in LAN and service provider networks.

From coaxial cable as a shared medium to twisted pair and fiber optic cables used in conjunction withs witches, Ethernet has come a long way since its inception. With advancements in technology, Ethernet data transfer rates have increased from the original2.94 Mbit/s to the latest 400 Gbit/s, with even faster rates of up to1.6 Tbit/s currently under development.

Ethernet has become the ubiquitous technology for a multitude of applications and use cases, ranging from Synchronous Ethernet (Sync-E) and Time Sensitive Networking (TSN) Ethernet has become as indispensable as water and electricity for facilitating data flow, serving as the foundation for Internet and enterprise network access, irrespective of whether the initial connection is wireless or wired.

As we observe the 50th anniversary of Ethernet, I'm thrilled to bring you a wealth of engaging content to highlight its profound impact. In the next installments of my Ethernet History blog series, I'll examine various use cases, particularly those that feature time-sensitive and mission-critical applications leveraging Ethernet as their primary means of communication. Be sure to catch the upcoming infographic and informative YouTube video that I'll be unveiling to celebrate this significant milestone and emphasize Ethernet's enduring influence on our digital landscape. Let's embark on this exciting journey together as we uncover the intriguing history and potential of Ethernet technology.

About the Author
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Mikael Holmberg
Distinguished Engineer and Member of the Office of the CTO

Mikael Holmberg is a Distinguished Engineer and Member of the Office of the CTO at Extreme Networks - he was the first person in company history to earn that title!

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