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Tech Explainer: How Ethernet has stayed relevant for 50 years

Kevin Jacoby's picture

by Kevin Jacoby on 03/29/2022
Blog Category: cloud-and-data-centers

Welcome to the 50th year of Ethernet. That’s right, we’ve been sending packets over cables between devices for half a century now.

Along the way, Ethernet has enabled a technological revolution. Its reliable, ever increasing high-speed communication has spurred growth in myriad sectors, including virtualization, high-performance computing (HPC), data mining and artificial intelligence (AI).

“Ethernet is a fabric of our lives and reaches everybody on a minute-by-minute basis,” says Gary “Gigabit” Gumanow, sales enablement manager for Ethernet at Intel.

He adds: “While it’s coming up on 50 years since the first Ethernet packets traversed a wire, it’s been 40 years since Xerox, Digital Equipment Corp. and Intel got together to drive the publishing of the IEEE standard for Ethernet.”

Ethernet cables

Ethernet’s CAT-5 cables with RJ-45 connectors

How right he is. Whether you’re managing an enterprise data center or sipping a Wi-Fi 6 signal in a coffee shop, Ethernet tech lurks behind the scenes, receiving and sending data at a breakneck pace.

5 virtues of Ethernet

Gary gave us 5 top reasons why Ethernet has been such a high-value tech enabler for more than 50 years:

> Abundant bandwidth: Over time, Ethernet bandwidth has increased logarithmically. Having started in 1973 with a bandwidth of just 2.9 megabits per second (Mbps), today’s Ethernet can stream data packets at an astounding 800 gigabits per second (Gbps).

> Backward compatibility: New technology often lays waste to earlier investments. Not so with Ethernet. Its new iterations connect seamlessly with existing switches, routers and other networking gear.

> Evolving Use Cases: Ethernet carries the kind of signal that can travel clear across the country with Carrier Grade Ethernet, storage, HPC, Wi-Fi for ubiquitous client connectivity, high-speed server connectivity, and bridging switches together in the core of our networks. There’s no need to buy specialized equipment or switch packet formats along the way… it’s Ethernet!

> Commitment to openness: After being ratified by the IEEE in 1983, Ethernet began new life as a global open standard. Today, nearly 40 years later, Ethernet continues to evolve. This is due in large part to its openness and accessibility, both of which encourage enterprises that otherwise compete to develop on a common platform.

> Interoperability: With the standards comes interoperability! But that isn’t always guaranteed. With Ethernet comes thousands of vendors working tirelessly to ensure that products work seamlessly for customers. The tech community has worked incredibly hard to ensure that when a customer installs a server from vendor A, with network adapter from vendor B, and switch from vendor C, that they all work together.

> Fierce competition: Because of its history as a reliable open standard, Ethernet has had a positive effect on the marketplace. It drives down costs, attracts venture capital and encourages healthy competition.

“There’s a saying in the tech world,” Gary says. “Nobody bets against Ethernet.”

The next 50 years

Ethernet is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Sure, it’s 50 years old. And, yes, when calculated in “tech years,” that’s practically an ice age.

But you gotta hand it to Ethernet co-inventors David Boggs and Bob Metcalfe. They built a platform with almost unheard-of longevity.

Boggs passed away recently at the age of 71. But there’s every reason to believe his dream of an open-standard, high-speed data transfer protocol will live on for another half-century.

So what does the future hold for our beloved networking mainstay? According to Gary Gigabit, more of the same… innovation and faster.

Raising the bus bar

However, there’s a catch. The current iteration of Ethernet has once again surpassed the capabilities of the PCI Express (PCIe) devices, with which it often interfaces.

“Ethernet has transitioned from 10 Gbps to 800 Gbps at the server,” Gary explains. “But the current PCIe 4 can only handle 200 Gbps. To go faster, we’ll need Gen 5 PCIe buses.”

If faster speeds lead to greater possibilities and spiraling innovation, does Gary see great things for the near future of ethernet-based communication?

In a word, yes.

“There are so many possibilities for Ethernet to come,” says the Intel engineer. “AI, at-home CAT scans, communications with Mars — the sky’s the limit.”


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