A few decades ago, communication systems were modems the size of refrigerators. These ran at 50Kbps (kilobits per second), and seemed revolutionary at the time. A desire for quicker communication with multiple servers introduced the possibility of local area network (LAN) lines. Ethernet found the solution to functional LAN communication and has dominated the field of wired connections ever since.
Bob Metcalfe invented Ethernet in 1973 at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. His revolutionary memo described sharing information across different “ethers,” such as cable, telephone, and radio. Metcalfe was assisted by David Boggs and Tat Lam to build the first Ethernet prototype at 2.94 Mbps (megabits per second). One megabit is equal to 1,024 kilobits, making it 1,000 times faster.
Revolutionizing LAN Connections
Long distance communication was common and thriving in the 1970s, but only through two terminals connecting over simple serial lines. LAN (local area network) lines were an innovation that attempted to connect more than just two systems. LAN could theoretically connect up to thousands of computers. Three topologies for transmission were considered:
- Star Topology
A star topology would have every computer connected to a central point that hosts and transmits information.
- Bus Topology
Bus topology uses one long cable that multiple computers would connect to. Information would be sent and received along the run of the hosting cable.
- Ring Topology
A ring topology consists of a cable running from a first computer to a second computer, and then to a third and so on until all systems are connected. The last computer would eventually connect to the first, completing a ring.
Ethernet ultimately conquered the LAN line standardization by seeking out and assimilating higher bitrate protocols and perfecting topological flaws. Ethernet used its cabling as radio “ether” and broadcasted packets over a thick coax cable. Computers connected to the Ethernet line through hole taps that joined outer and inner conductors. The two ends of the coax cable had terminating resistors that regulate the electrical properties of the cable; this allows for signals to be sent out, but doesn’t allow them to reflect back. This was highly innovative as many previous connections experienced lost transmissions from signals interfering with each other through reflection.
Ethernet solved the issue of interfering transmissions by having stations that directly monitor transmissions. Ethernet stations check for idle ethers and wait if they sense a signal. After transmitting information, stations check for interference by comparing the wire signal to the signal they’re trying to send. If these signals don’t match, there must be interference. Both sender and receiver are aware of a failed transmission, and retransmission attempts can then take place. Information was no longer lost in the abyss without one or both parties knowing it.
The Need for Speed
Back in the 1980s, Ethernet at 10Mbps transmitted information at revolutionary speeds. This speed is still used today in some households. In the 1990s, Fiber Distributed Data Interface (FDDI) introduced a ring network running at 100Mbps. This was ten times faster than Ethernet, but high costs and faulty cables made the product unpopular.
Fast Ethernet was soon created that ran at the same 100Mbps speed. The original 10Mbps Ethernet used encoding that proved to be problematic at the higher speeds. Connection hubs started to appear that separated the levels of speed but allowed them to interact. Communication between both types of computers was necessary, as you may have the 100Mbps speeds while your grandparents are still using the 10Mbps speeds.
Through the last couple decades, Ethernet has progressed to Gigabit speeds. A Gigabit is 1,000 times faster than a Megabit. The introduction of Gigabit speeds brought on new fibers with advanced digital signal processing. Businesses demanding instantaneous information have influenced the creations of 10Gbps and even 100Gbps speeds. These speeds are sending huge packets of information in the blink of an eye. In fact, a 100Gbps system sends an entire packet of information in the same time that the original 10Mbps system sends a single bit of information.
Ethernet has fought to maintain its wired connection prestige. It has now survived 30 years in production, and only increased its speed by four orders of magnitude; Ethernet has taken a few steps but these steps have been monumental. Ethernet growth has only been slowed by the convenience of Wireless connections. How will Ethernet further compete? The reliable speeds of wired connections are still desired, especially in homes and offices. There’s even talk of terabit Ethernet connections. Adaptation is Ethernet’s true specialty.