Ethernet and IEEE 802.3 – The Beat Goes On


“At the start, in 1973, the goal was mainly to print on our new laser printer. By 1980, world domination was the goal.” – Dr. Robert (Bob) Metcalfe, co-inventor of Ethernet

From its humble beginnings as a sketch on the back of a napkin in 1973 to its current standing as the global networking technology of choice, it’s safe to say predictions of Ethernet’s worldwide acceptance have come true. Ethernet is arguably one of history’s most disruptive technology innovations, driving critical advancements in networking, communications, and more. And now on the cusp of its 42nd birthday – with no midlife crisis in sight – this fundamental, ubiquitous networking protocol is ready to shake things up all over again.

At its core, Ethernet is a collaborative creation; throughout its venerable history, it has been shaped and molded by many hands. For instance, the dedicated, cooperative efforts of individuals and organizations around the world to develop and maintain the IEEE 802.3™ family of Ethernet standards have ensured Ethernet’s adaptability, scalability, and most importantly, durability. Its collective nature combined with the flexibility inherently encoded into Ethernet’s DNA allows it to respond nimbly to both industry needs and market stimuli. The result? Ethernet has evolved into, as Bob Metcalfe puts it, “a brand of innovation” on a global scale.

You may not even realize it’s there, but Ethernet is likely an essential part of your everyday life – it’s estimated that nearly all data traffic begins and ends on Ethernet interfaces. By leveraging Ethernet as a common foundation, technology pioneers have and continue to craft innovative new applications that hundreds of millions of people worldwide have come to depend upon at home, at work, and at play. While many users rarely recognize how much they’ve come to rely upon this key technology, they would certainly feel its absence if it were suddenly gone. For a better view of how and where Ethernet plays a role in our lives today, just take a look at this video:

In its earliest incarnation, Ethernet ran at 3Mbps. Fast-forward 42 years, and we now have an ever-expanding array of standardized Ethernet speeds, including 10Mbps; 100Mbps; 1Gbps; 10Gbps; 40Gbps; and 100Gbps. There are now a bevy of other new speeds either already making their way through the standardization pipeline or that are being given serious consideration for future standards projects. And it’s this continued evolution and progression that will open the door to a new generation of innovative technologies and applications that will not only further permeate but also elevate our daily lives.

There’s fresh momentum building within the Ethernet ecosystem as this indispensable networking protocol continues to diversify and is reinvented to meet the needs of an ever-broadening array of users. Demand from new market segments and emerging applications like wireless access points and data centers are directly driving new standards projects such as 2.5Gbps. Additionally, Ethernet is also being carried in unexpected directions, across unexplored terrain – for example, the automotive industry, and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Imagine automobiles that are smarter, safer, and less expensive. It could happen thanks to automotive-grade Ethernet. Global analyst firm Frost & Sullivan predicts that by 2020, typical mass-market cars will have between 50 – 60 Ethernet ports, while luxury autos will sport more than 100. In-vehicle Ethernet can cost-effectively provide needed support for sophisticated applications such as autonomous driving or driver-assistance features, interior and exterior cameras, embedded displays, and infotainment. It could also facilitate the connection between cars and external systems – like the aforementioned Internet of Things – that could help eliminate traffic woes and improve overall safety. By replacing traditional wiring with Ethernet, automakers can lower costs, reduce vehicle weights, and improve fuel economy.

Speaking of the IoT, it’s an innovative concept that seems tailor-made for Ethernet. Light fixtures that have an IP address? Smart diapers? Connected cows? All whimsy aside, the emergence of the IoT has opened the door to a new generation of technologies, devices, and applications that will substantially alter the world as we know it. Connected medical devices may soon become one of the best early detection weapons in the fight against serious health conditions. Smart city innovations are already helping to solve public safety, transportation, and energy challenges, elevating the quality of life for urban dwellers.

The explosive growth of the IoT doesn’t appear as if it will slow anytime soon. Technology research and advisory firm Gartner, Inc. predicts some 4.9 billion connected things will be in use during 2015 alone, and that number is expected to soar to 25 billion by the year 2020. The one commonality among all of these connected devices and things is the need for a dependable means of communicating and transmitting data. With its unique ability to accommodate a wide range of speeds, Ethernet will be the key to progressing the IoT from the conceptual to reality.

At the ripe old age of (almost) 42, you might suspect that Ethernet would begin showing some signs of wear and tear. Instead, just the opposite is true – it continues to grow, evolve, and expand, charting new territory and serving as a springboard for the innovations of today, tomorrow, and beyond. For Ethernet, the best is truly yet to come.

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