Ethernet Still Going Strong

Thirty years after Ethernet was born in a memo by Bob Metcalfe, experts say the networking technology's best days may be to come.

Ethernet, that ubiquitous networking standard, turns 30 years old this week. And while the technologys primary developers—Intel Corp., Xerox Corp., 3Com Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.—gather to commemorate the anniversary, experts, including Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, say Ethernets best days may be yet to come.

Ethernet was born in a memo by Metcalfe proposing the networking technology circulated at Xeroxs Palo Alto Research Center May 22, 1973. In the three decades since, the technology has seen many changes, a trend thats likely to continue.

"The last 30 years were about faster file transfer. The next 10 years will be about handling all types of communications," said Brice Clark, director of strategy and planning for HPs Procurve networking, in Roseville, Calif.

Indeed, Ethernet has moved from a 10M-bps networking technology based on thick coaxial cable to a 10G-bps technology that runs on fiber, with the intermediary 100M-bps and Gigabit Ethernet networks using the more flexible and less costly Category 5 twisted-pair wiring. Preliminary work has even begun in the IEEE on a 40G-bps Ethernet standard.

Beyond basic file transfer and transaction processing traffic, the most obvious new type of communications for Ethernet as it improves its speed and lowers latency is VOIP (voice over IP), which is gaining ground in some enterprises. And Ethernet will also carry increasing amounts of multimedia, as videoconferencing takes off, Clark predicted.

In addition to carrying new traffic types, Ethernet is increasingly being applied outside its original use as a LAN technology to work in MANs (metropolitan area networks) and in wireless networks, and it may someday take off as a WAN technology.

Metcalfe, now a general partner in venture capital investment company Polaris Venture Partners Inc., in Waltham, Mass., has guided funding of several startups that are applying Ethernet to new areas.

"There is one startup which developed equipment to deliver Gigabit Ethernet over HFC [Hybrid Fiber Coaxial] cable for true broadband access and services over the installed cable plant," Metcalfe said. "[Another] proposes to do the same thing using 60GHz Gigabit Ethernet over radio beams in a mesh network. Those are two last-mile technologies based on Ethernet."