30 Years Ago: Networking in the 1980s Meant Ethernet vs. Token Ring
It wouldn’t be until 1985, PC Week’s second year in business, that the IEEE adopted an Ethernet standard, but a few years before that, 19 companies agreed to use an Ethernet specification, a huge break for the technology and its backers. Another significant change occurred when Ethernet technology moved away from being based on shared coaxial cable to telephone-grade twisted-pair copper media, which made it easier to install, more reliable and less costly. That was a key change in 10Base-T Ethernet, which not only used twisted-pair media for the first time, but also was inexpensive and hit speeds of 10M bps. Speed and performance continued to help Ethernet to eventually push its way past Token Ring. At one point, Token Ring ran at 4M bps, though IBM officials argued that due to its greater efficiencies, it actually offered better performance than Ethernet at 10 M bps—and argument that 3Com and other Ethernet supporters disputed. Even though early in its development Token Ring briefly got faster than Ethernet, Ethernet continued to quickly ramp up its speed, going from 10M bps to 100M bps, eventually reaching 1G bps and, now, 10G bps and 40G bps, with an eye toward 100G bps. Token Ring couldn’t keep up, and vendors like Cisco—which in 1998 opted out of a project to get to 100M bps—continued their migration to Ethernet. At the same time, vendors were introducing products that helped reduce collisions within Ethernet environments, which further ramped up the technology’s performance and reliability.Ethernet is now the dominant LAN connectivity technology, and Token Ring is rarely seen anymore. There are still Token Ring adapters, cables and other gear that can be found for sale on such sites as NewEgg and CDW, but it would be difficult to find many instances of Token Ring installations today outside of longtime IBM environments. “I honestly don’t know of anyone still using the [Token Ring] technology, but I expect there are some out there, mainly in legacy mainframe and AS400 installations in both business and government agencies,” Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT Research, said in an email to eWEEK.
Cost also was a factor. As the speed and performance of Ethernet rapidly improved, the cost of the technology was going down. However, the price of Token Ring equipment continued to remain high, due in large part to high royalties IBM charged vendors making Token Ring products. In a 2008 column, an adjunct professor at ITT Institute said that a Token Ring card could cost five or six times as much as an Ethernet card. “Add on the cost of more expensive cabling and MAUs, and Token Ring just priced itself out of the market,” John Sheesley wrote in his column on TechRepublic.