Ethernet turns 30 gracefully

Ethernet turns 30 gracefully

Everybody probably wishes they looked as good at 30 as Ethernet.

Since its invention in 1973, the fabled network technology has evolved from a shared to a dedicated medium and undergone a nearly 1000-fold speed increase. And along the way it quashed all LAN comers - namely Token Ring, FDDI and ATM.

But if one thing has remained constant with Ethernet, it's change, including expansion into the wide area and, well, into the ether.

Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet 30 years ago last month at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC). One of the celebrants at Ethernet's birthday party at Xerox PARC on May 22 was Bob Grow, an Intel engineer and chair of the IEEE 802.3 Working Group, that governs the Ethernet standard.

"Ethernet has been successful in every area it's been extended to," Grow said. "It's now part of the entrenched infrastructure. And one thing that's always been true in the communications market is that it's hard to displace something that's entrenched."

Ethernet simply seems to get more entrenched each year. Technological improvements have let Ethernet creep into metropolitan-area networks (MAN) as an alternative to SONET transport, and even as an alternative to DSL and frame relay in the last mile. But perhaps, most significantly, the emergence of Wi-Fi wireless extensions to Ethernet seem to guarantee the technology yet another growth opportunity.

While 802.11 is commonly called Wireless Ethernet, Grow said this was a slight misnomer. "Is 802.11 really Ethernet? No. But the first thing that happens when you come out of an access point is connect to an Ethernet LAN."

While 10/100M bit/sec Ethernet accounts for more than 90 percent of the world's LAN ports, some say Wi-Fi's mobility and ease of use could reduce the number of Ethernet endpoints.

"As an access technology . . . Wi-Fi is becoming the biggest challenger to 802.3 Ethernet in a long time," IDC analyst, Abner Germanow, said.

But the fact that Wi-Fi is a shared media where clients compete for bandwidth, and there are concerns about security. might hinder Wi-Fi's acceptance.

"A lot of the questions around Wi-Fi are starting to have better answers," Synergy Research Group analyst, Aaron Vance, said.

He cited the emergence of wireless LAN switch products - equipment that bridges wireless Wi-Fi environments to the wired Ethernet world - as an example of improvements.

Standards such as 802.11a and 802.11i also will make Wi-Fi faster and more secure.

As a result, Synergy predicts that one in 10 LAN clients could be wireless by 2007.

Beyond the LAN

While some carriers that once touted end-to-end wide-area Ethernet services have fallen on hard times, the technology still has promise beyond LANs.

"With the capabilities of new services like MPLS and IPv6, we can move [Ethernet] from LAN applications to metro applications," senior vice-president and general manager of switching, voice and storage at Cisco, Luca Cafiero, said.

This could lead to "the possibility of connecting homes to an Ethernet service", he said.

"Metro Ethernet is much more popular in Asia," Synergy analyst, Joshua Johnson, said. "Domestically, we're seeing it, but carriers are kind of keeping it a secret too because they're still making a lot of money on frame relay and ATM."

The biggest technical challenge for Ethernet in the MAN was resiliency, Johnson said. "One advantage SONET has is that its ring topology is quite resilient."

The 802.17 standard for Resilient Packet Ring technology is under development to make Ethernet more SONET-like, with shorter failover times.

Some users aren't waiting for the carriers to bring Ethernet to them. The University of Southern California uses 10G Ethernet over leased fiber to connect its Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Ray to its main campus in Los Angeles. The aim is to use the pipe to do massive storage backup instead of driving tapes between the locations. The school uses a mix of Foundry Networks and Enterasys Networks 10 Gigabit switches.

"If you want to get an OC-192 connection [the SONET equivalent of 10G bit/sec (Ethernet) from a telco to connect two remote sites, it's not cheap,"director of the school's Information Sciences Institute, Richard Nelson, said.

Leasing fiber and running 10G Ethernet was a tenth the cost, he said. In the long run Ethernet would rule the MAN and WAN, as it does the LAN.

"The optics are getting better and the ranges are getting better (with Ethernet), which means the SONET stuff will be driven out," Nelson said.

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