30 Years Ago: Networking in the 1980s Meant Ethernet vs. Token Ring

eWEEK 30: Forty years later, Ethernet is the ubiquitous networking technology, thanks to faster speeds and lower prices than Token Ring.

The Ethernet networking technology was already 10 years old when PC Week was growing rapidly in the midst of the IBM PC boom.

In May 2013 it celebrated its 40th birthday, and today it remains unchallenged as the dominant networking system in the world, connecting an estimated 90 percent of all devices, from PCs to servers to switches.

A technology that co-inventors Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs developed at Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) originally to connect their computers to printers, Ethernet has become ubiquitous throughout the $200 billion global networking industry. It’s difficult now to imagine a connected world that didn’t include Ethernet.

However, that wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s—when consumers and businesses began using PCs in earnest—and into the 1990s, the field for LAN connectivity was wide open, setting up a clash of technologies between Ethernet—which had the backing of the likes of Digital Equipment Corp., 3Com (which was founded by Metcalfe), Intel and Xerox—and Token Ring, developed by IBM and with initial support from Cisco Systems and others.

Also in the mix for a relatively short amount of time was ARCnet, which had some similarities to Token Ring.

But the bulk of the debate centered around Ethernet vs. Token Ring, and while Ethernet eventually won, the debate was fierce and lasted for years. While some industry observers argued that Token Ring had several technological advantages over Ethernet, eventually the latter won out, due in large part to its performance and price, common issues around which many technology debates are settled.

With Ethernet, data travels through the network inside units called frames, with each frame containing source and destination addresses. If data from multiple computers are transmitted at the same time and a collision happens, the systems wait before transmitting again.

In a Token Ring network, all devices are connected to the network, with empty data frames circulating around the ring. A computer is granted the right to transmit data. Then the data and destination are inserted into an empty frame. The destination system grabs the data, the message is removed from the frame, and the now-empty frame is sent back circulating around the ring until another system needs to send a message. This was seen by proponents as more efficient than Ethernet in handling messages and ensuring fewer “collisions” between transmitted data.

IBM was the big backer of Token Ring in the 1980s, but eventually most top-tier vendors, businesses and government agencies found their way to Ethernet.