What is Ethernet? History, evolution and roadmap

As part of that agreement, Xerox dropped its trademark of the Ethernet name, allowing any company to use Ethernet with its products. Bandwidth and throughput was also increased to 10 Mb/sec, which was more than enough to handle most networking tasks at the time, with room to spare. All of that helped Ethernet to become the dominant standard worldwide.

Ethernet turns 50; Turing award for Metcalfe

Ethernet turned 50 years old on May 22, 2023. A few months prior to the big anniversary, on March 22, the Association for Computing Machinery awarded Bob Metcalfe the prestigious A. M. Turing Award for inventing and commercializing Ethernet. The Turing award carries a $1 million prize and was presented at a ceremony June 10 in San Francisco.

Metcalfe said he remembers that day in 1973 very clearly. “I was sitting in Building 34 (at Xerox PARC), at a Selectric typewriter, typing a summary of my thoughts on how networks should work, and then I hard-drew the diagrams. I wrote the memo on the Orator ball on the Selectric, which was sans serif because I liked that font.”

Boggs, the co-creator of Ethernet, died last year and Metcalfe has fond memories of their partnership. “He and I were the Bobbsey Twins,” he told Network World. “We were wonderfully complementary; I being the more articulate of the two and he being the more detailed oriented. Together we built this thing, and I miss him. He was a good friend.”

Ethernet’s bright (and fast) future

The simplicity of the Ethernet standard as well as its ability to support faster speeds while also remaining backwards compatible has allowed the protocol to grow alongside many technical advancements. Today, almost any computer or computing device can support speeds up to one gigabit per second. Commonly called Gigabit Ethernet, when you compare its raw speed of 1Gb/sec (which is 1,000 Mbit/s) with the original 10 Mbit/s standard that early Ethernet supported, it’s easy to see how far the protocol has come.

Gigabit Ethernet probably provides more than enough bandwidth for home networks and most offices. At that speed, even intensive bandwidth applications like video streaming or playing online video games operate flawlessly, even with multiple users on the same network. But Ethernet can do more.

The IEEE Ethernet Working Group approved specifications for 200 Gb/sec and 400 Gb/sec Ethernet several years ago. It’s mostly data centers, internet service providers (ISPs) and specialized organizations like Network Operations Centers that would be most interested in those kinds of speeds. A few cloud service providers and others say they are working with 400 Gb/sec speeds in some capacity, although full adoption of the standard seems to be hung up on certain elements like new cabling requirements (the current Cat 5 and Cat 5e cables don’t support those speeds), backwards compatibility issues for devices and increased power consumption requirements within data centers.

Technically, the specification for 800 Gb/sec Ethernet also exists, but nobody is currently using it outside of a test environment. And the interesting thing about Ethernet is that because it is such an open protocol, there is no reason to think that even the 800 Gb/sec speeds are anywhere near the theoretical maximum.

In fact, research is being done in order set the groundwork for a 1.6 terabyte per second standard. Speeds like that will probably only be useful in highly specific applications. For example, a corporation or government entity could possibly backup their network data to an offsite location very quickly. If they had 500 terabytes of data to send, that process could be completed in under 14 minutes.

Next up: Consortium looks to supersize Ethernet for AI infrastructures

AI workloads are expected to put unprecedented performance and capacity demands on networks, and a handful of networking vendors have teamed up to enhance Ethernet technology in order to handle the scale and speed required by AI.

In July 2023, AMD, Arista, Broadcom, Cisco, Eviden, HPE, Intel, Meta and Microsoft announced the Ultra Ethernet Consortium (UEC), a group hosted by the Linux Foundation that’s working to develop physical, link, transport and software layer Ethernet advances. There are concerns that today’s traditional network interconnects cannot provide the required performance, scale and bandwidth to keep up with AI demands, and the consortium aims to address those concerns.

The UEC wrote in a white paper that it will further an Ethernet specification to feature a number of core technologies and capabilities including:

  • Multi-pathing and packet spraying to ensure AI workflows have access to a destination simultaneously.
  • Flexible delivery order to make sure Ethernet links are optimally balanced; ordering is only enforced when the AI workload requires it in bandwidth-intensive operations.
  • Modern congestion-control mechanisms to ensure AI workloads avoid hotspots and evenly spread the load across multipaths. They can be designed to work in conjunction with multipath packet spraying, enabling a reliable transport of AI traffic.
  • End-to-end telemetry to manage congestion. Information originating from the network can advise the participants of the location and cause of the congestion. Shortening the congestion signaling path and providing more information to the endpoints allows more responsive congestion control.

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