Today’s Labs blog comes from Joe Gervais, senior director of product management. He brings us his thoughts on the 40th anniversary of Ethernet today, and draws from his own experience using Ethernet for the past two decades. Take it away, Joe!
Today, at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), the networking industry is celebrating the 40th anniversary of Bob Metcalfe’s invention of Ethernet. In the early 1980s, when Ethernet was first commercialized, it ran at 10 million bits per second. In comparison, the emerging 40Gb Ethernet (40GbE) standard can send an entire frame on the wire in the time the first byte of a frame could be sent with the original Ethernet.
The fascinating part of Ethernet is how it’s fulfilled Metcalfe’s Law – the value of a network is proportional to the square of the number of connected users of the system. In the early days, you might have a department network with 20 users sharing computing resources or files. These Local Area Networks (LANs) would then be connected and become more valuable, and services like email would crop up. Then we saw widespread use of the Internet, and the World Wide Web.
I look at the way my home network is used now versus 20 years ago. In the 1990s, it was connecting my computer to my children’s computers so we could share a dial-up Internet connection or a printer. Today, it’s using my iPhone over Wi-Fi to my Wi-Fi router as the remote for my Ethernet connected stereo and Blu-ray player, with my Internet connection being a fiber optic passive optical network connection. It’s watching a Netflix movie on the television, then pausing the show and changing over to a tablet elsewhere in the house to finish watching the show. It’s my wife, a technophobe, using FaceTime to videoconference with her granddaughter across the country and using Facebook to keep up with far-flung friends.
A number of years ago, Sun Microsystems had a slogan: the Network Is the Computer. In today’s world, the network is central to many aspects of life. Over the past several years I’ve been working with a non-profit supporting Bible translation for the 2000 languages yet to receive a word of the Bible in their own language. One of the non-profit’s technology initiatives is supplying translation acceleration kits. This is a battery and solar panel, to power a netbook that is connected over Ethernet to a satellite terminal. This allows the translation team to communicate instantly with their translation consultants, saving days of treacherous travel and speeding the translation task by years – all through the use of Ethernet and the Internet.
What does all of this have to do with business computing? Much of this home networking is driving the build-out of massively scalable data centers – services like Amazon’s Web Services (AWS) that provide the infrastructure used by Netflix to stream content to consumers. Google and Microsoft have some of the world’s largest data centers around the planet. This segment is consuming a new class of multinode rack servers that grew nearly 100% between 2011 and 2012 and already make up about 15% of total server shipments1. Much of this infrastructure is using 10GbE today for server connectivity, and is the fastest interconnect available for Internet connectivity, with 100G transceiver shipments tripling in 20122. This is pushing the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.3 working group to begin work on the next group of standards for Ethernet beyond 100GbE. Projections indicate that today’s social media and mobile devices will drive the need for ten terabit Ethernet by the end of the decade3.
What does the future hold for Ethernet? We’ve seen Ethernet evolve from the early days of being a party line – half duplex using CSMA/CD – carrier sense, multiple access with collision detection (where an Ethernet endpoint attempts to send a packet and if it collides with another packet, backs off and tries again) – to today’s full duplex, point-to-point switched topology. We’ve seen the evolution from coaxial backbones to twisted pair. It’s likely the future holds more mainstream usage of optical interconnect as speeds increase. The optics vendors today are building high volume, low power, lower cost embedded optical solutions called active optical cables that provide optical transceivers connected with a pre-terminated optical cable. Silicon photonics holds promise for optical solutions at 100GbE and faster, where a fixed light is injected into a silicon-based optical switch. Honestly, I’ve been following Ethernet as a user and producer for nearly 30 years, and it’s hard to project what the next networking technology will look like, but it will most certainly be named Ethernet. Happy Birthday, Ethernet.
- Gartner: Forecast: Servers by Form Factor, Worldwide, 1Q13 Update, April 11, 2013.
- Infonetics: Optical transceiver market bolstered as 100G arrives in force (press release)
- IEEE: IEEE Launches Study Group to Explore 400Gb/s Ethernet (press release)