Ethernet is the most widely-installed local area network ( LAN) technology. Specified in a standard, IEEE 802.3, Ethernet was originally developed by Xerox from an earlier specification called Alohanet (for the Palo Alto Research Center Aloha network) and then developed further by Xerox, DEC, and Intel.
Ethernet has been around for 40 years, and in that time has become the dominant networking technology for organizations around the world. Ethernet reliably and securely links computers, servers, storage, and other devices while minimizing the latency that doesn’t just slow down data, but can slow down business, as well.
In today’s business world, reliable and efficient access to information has become an important asset in the quest to achieve a competitive advantage. File cabinets and mountains of papers have given way to computers that store and manage information electronically. Coworkers thousands of miles apart can share information instantaneously, just as hundreds of workers in a single location can simultaneously review research data maintained online.
Computer networking technologies are the glue that binds these elements together. The public Internet allows businesses around the world to share information with each other and their customers. The global computer network known as the World Wide Web provides services that let consumers buy books, clothes, and even cars online, or auction those same items off when no longer wanted.
Because it is so widely used and based on a relatively simple protocol, Ethernet is easily managed and operated, and less costly to implement than other types of networking. Little wonder, then, that it is estimated to be used by more than 95 percent of all local area networks, or LANs.
Its design elements also make it uniquely suited for linking computers and other devices over long distances. Ethernet can connect buildings on a campus, or link corporate offices to a cloud provider, backup facility, or off-site data center. And it does so with its trademark low latency, making far-flung resources appear and perform as if they were on a local network. That capability is becoming increasingly important for businesses that are seeing their geographic footprint expand, and their employees become more mobile.
Networking allows one computer to send information to and receive information from another. We may not always be aware of the numerous times we access information on computer networks. Certainly the Internet is the most conspicuous example of computer networking, linking millions of computers around the world, but smaller networks play a role in information access on a daily basis. Many public libraries have replaced their card catalogs with computer terminals that allow patrons to search for books far more quickly and easily. Airports have numerous screens displaying information regarding arriving and departing flights. Many retail stores feature specialized computers that handle point-of-sale transactions. In each of these cases, networking allows many different devices in multiple locations to access a shared repository of data.
Local Area vs. Wide Area
We can classify network technologies as belonging to one of two basic groups. Local area network (LAN) technologies connect many devices that are relatively close to each other, usually in the same building. The library terminals that display book information would connect over a local area network. Wide area network (WAN) technologies connect a smaller number of devices that can be many kilometers apart. For example, if two libraries at the opposite ends of a city wanted to share their book catalog information, they would most likely make use of a wide area network technology, which could be a dedicated line leased from the local telephone company, intended solely to carry their data.
In comparison to WANs, LANs are faster and more reliable, but improvements in technology continue to blur the line of demarcation. Fiber optic cables have allowed LAN technologies to connect devices tens of kilometers apart, while at the same time greatly improving the speed and reliability of WANs.
Using a private, Ethernet-based network for mission-critical applications and data, businesses can bypass the public Internet. This brings some important advantages. For example, with a single service provider managing the connection end to end, time-sensitive traffic can be prioritized and network performance closely monitored. Users can also benefit from service-level agreements (SLAs), which detail specific performance guarantees from the provider. For businesses, this means no unpleasant surprises — and an avenue for growth.
The Ethernet History
In 1973, at Xerox Corporation’s Palo Alto Research Center (more commonly known as PARC), researcher Bob Metcalfe designed and tested the first Ethernet network. While working on a way to link Xerox’s “Alto” computer to a printer, Metcalfe developed the physical method of cabling that connected devices on the Ethernet as well as the standards that governed communication on the cable. Ethernet has since become the most popular and most widely deployed network technology in the world. Many of the issues involved with Ethernet are common to many network technologies, and understanding how Ethernet addressed these issues can provide a foundation that will improve your understanding of networking in general.
The Ethernet standard has grown to encompass new technologies as computer networking has matured, but the mechanics of operation for every Ethernet network today stem from Metcalfe’s original design. The original Ethernet described communication over a single cable shared by all devices on the network. Once a device attached to this cable, it had the ability to communicate with any other attached device. This allows the network to expand to accommodate new devices without requiring any modification to those devices already on the network.
Ethernet is a local area technology, with networks traditionally operating within a single building, connecting devices in close proximity. At most, Ethernet devices could have only a few hundred meters of cable between them, making it impractical to connect geographically dispersed locations. Modern advancements have increased these distances considerably, allowing Ethernet networks to span tens of kilometers.
In networking, the term protocol refers to a set of rules that govern communications. Protocols are to computers what language is to humans. Since this article is in English, to understand it you must be able to read English. Similarly, for two devices on a network to successfully communicate, they must both understand the same protocols.
Today, such business-class networking is readily available in the form of Carrier Ethernet. While Carrier Ethernet looks and acts like standard Ethernet — and integrates seamlessly with Ethernet LANs and networking gear — it adds carrier-level reliability and performance. Special monitoring and management tools help maintain service-level guarantees, with problems automatically detected and routed around in as little as 50 milliseconds. Carrier Ethernet is designed to meet not only the networking demands a company has today, but those it will have tomorrow.
By enabling businesses to grow their footprint, and their business, Ethernet lets them create a bigger, better future — for themselves and their customers.