Thinking Tech

IEEE 802 Ethernet committee turns 30, passions still run high

IEEE 802 Ethernet committee turns 30, passions still run high

Posting in Technology

The key IEEE 802 Ethernet standard turns 30 today and is showing no signs of losing influence when it comes to key network standards. Even better, the pioneers that hammered out the Ethernet standard are still hammering each other. Now, that's passion for technology.

Ethernet technology that launched the personal computer into networking  is 37 years old, but just as significantly, the IEEE 802 standards committee that made Ethernet a reality and that will steer it into future has turned 30. That's just as long as I have been writing about information technology.

I left daily newspapers in January of 1980 and started writing for a new Fairchild publication called MIS Week (Management Information Systems). Back then, networking personal computers was a pipedream. Networking was the exclusive domain of hugely expensive mini and mainframe computers using the hulking water-cooled communications front end processors housed in 7-foot high (sometimes bulletproof) cabinets.

In 1980, there were crude acoustic coupler hook-ups over telephones, but personal computers and terminals usually had to talk to a mini or mainframe and very slowly at that (remember 300 baud modems? Ugh). The idea that PCs could talk to each other was just too populist and threatening to IBM's dominance with mainframe computers.

The IEEE 802 committee formally known today as the IEEE 802 LAN/MAN Standard Committee is probably as important as Ethernet itself because it came up with 802.3 set of wired standards that allowed personal computers to talk to each over local area networks or LANs. Those LANs became wide are networks or WANs and the rest is history: we expect to be linked to the Internet no matter where we are.

According to a 2003 Q&A with Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet is about 3,000 times faster than it was when he invented it at Xerox PARC in 1973 (How long ago was that? Consider that Vietnam War still had two years to go).

"[Ethernet] has already gone places never intended, and they're working on 40 gigabits per second, and we started at 2.94 megabits per second, which we thought was dazzlingly fast. And it's also being used in applications like metro access and 802.11 wireless. In the future, 10-gigabit, 40-gigabit and 100-gigabit Ethernet are going to make Fibre Channel unnecessary, and it will fall just the way FDDI fell," Metcalfe said in the seven year-old Computerworld Interview.

Even then, Metcalfe was talking about Ethernet moving data at the speed of light!

The standards process can often be a dogfight and indeed it was in 1980 when representatives from Tektronix, Intel, Digital Equipment, IBM and Xerox convened to pull together the various pieces of the Ethernet under the auspices of IEEE. And apparently those feelings are still pretty raw.

"[Metcalfe] came to a couple of our meetings and denounced that standards are contrary to innovation," according to Tektronix representative and then IEEE 802 committee chairman Maris Graube says in a story at Mobilizing BizApps. "To me it doesn't matter a whole lot how it got done, as long as it does get done."

For his part, Metcalfe responded a day ago to Graube's comments at the same web site's forums.

"Maris says that I said that standards were bad, but this far from the truth, as I spent much of the 1980s campaigning for the Unix, TCP/IP and IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standard," Metcalfe shoots back.

Well, thank God they did it get it done and still feel such passion about Ethernet (that 'gotta be the smartest guy in the room' thing just never dies). To celebrate and discuss where Ethernet goes from here, the IEEE 802 commitee has a web site and a Facebook page.

Evan Koblenz at Mobilizing BizApps wrote a good Ethernet retrospective in which he lucidly summarizes the outer reaches of what committee is working on now.

"The most far-out ideas in his committee are 802.15.6, Body Area Networks, and 802.15.7, Visible Light Communication. The former could be used for nano-scale transceivers embedded inside pills that patients swallow, and the latter for data networks performing high-rate modulation of light waves as the physical layer. That would operate in an unlicensed terahertz range and be immune to electrical interference as long as there aren't windows in the vicinity," he writes.

Rock on, Ethernet.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure