What is Ethernet: The existential question for The Ethernet Alliance

By Hugh Barrass

Along with Scott Kipp, I’ll be presenting the webinar: Ethernet 101 – Introduction to Ethernet (June 27th at 9am Pacific ). This will give you a high level overview of the history, the breadth and the future of Ethernet, but before we get to that point, many of you will have asked the basic question, “What is Ethernet?”

This question can be asked and answered on many levels. 

Firstly, Ethernet is a historical fact – 40 years ago, back in 1973, Bob Metcalfe sent a memo describing what he called “Ethernet.” So it completes the circle to have him giving the keynote at the upcoming “Future of Ethernet” Technology Exploration Forum on October 15, 2013. However, the Ethernet of 1973 is very different to the Ethernet of today. Back then it was a way for a number of computers to talk using a shared coaxial cable; it was 10,000 times slower than today’s Ethernet; and it was too unpredictable to run reliable services (such as voice or video) – two computers talking at the same time would cause a (literally) random delay for the network. Whatever Ethernet was, today it is clearly much, much more than that.

Many people (including me, sometimes) will tell you that Ethernet is a standard. In the latest revision, IEEE 802.3 changed its official title from the incomprehensible (& slightly misleading) “Part 3: Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection (CSMA/CD) Access Method and Physical Layer Specifications” to “IEEE Standard for Ethernet.” It couldn’t be more definitive than that … Except that IEEE 802.1 is often referred to as “Ethernet Switching,” and the ever popular “Ethernet modules” that we all know and love are defined outside of realm of the IEEE 802.3 standard. It’s clear that Ethernet is a standard, but it is also an ecosystem built around that standard.

So that gives us the history, the standard and the ecosystem – but there’s still something missing. Over the years there have been rivals that have challenged Ethernet on its own turf – from Token Ring, through ATM & many others – yet Ethernet has not simply fought them off, it has expanded into more and more applications and environments. There must be a reason why leaders in so many fields have brought Ethernet into their domains: There is an ethos behind Ethernet; an approach to problems that yields solutions which are good for the whole food chain – from the supplier to the user. Ethernet is an open standard; it creates a level playing field for innovators; but most important of all, Ethernet takes the simplest approach to solve the problems it faces – to paraphrase Albert Einstein: “it is as simple as it can be and no simpler.”

We hope that you can attend the Ethernet 101 webinar in person on June 27th, but if you can’t, the webinar will be available on the Ethernet Alliance website with the other webinars in the series.

By Hugh Barrass

Technologist, Cisco

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely that of the individual(s) and should not be considered the views or positions of the Ethernet Alliance.