What if Ethernet failed?

Experts say innovation, standardization would have suffered; IBM might be King of Networking

Can you imagine a world where carriers offered Metro FDDI services? Or the IEEE defined a standard for Token Bus in the First Mile?

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Or ruggedized gear for harsh environments was based on Industrial ATM? Or data center convergence included a proposal for Fibre Channel-over-Token Ring?

What would the networking world look like if Ethernet hadn't won?

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"Standards, consistency, simplicity, scale and innovation would have suffered," says IDC analyst Rohit Mehra. "If there was no consistency, networking would be even more complex than it is today."

Others agree.

"It would be more complicated, less reliable and slower," says Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research. "There'd be more outages, and perhaps our expectations on service levels would be lower."

"We would have gone through a much longer period of proprietary networks," says Jon Oltsik, principal analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group. "The goodness of IP, including the Internet, wouldn't have happened as quickly."

Each segment of the network - local area, metro area and wide area - may have had a different technology. Token Ring would have dominated the LAN, though Token Bus in some instances - manufacturing floors, for example - would have had spot deployments.

FDDI may have overtaken the metro area. And ATM and frame relay would have proliferated throughout the WAN, just as they did up until Ethernet-based services began displacing them.

And with all of these different technologies populating different parts of the network, consistency of end-to-end service would likely take a hit. Gateways and bridges between different technologies would increase latency, and along with it, capital and operational expense.

And advances like distributed computing and client/server computing - or distributed client/server computing - would have never have come about or been crippled if they did.

"There'd be no client/server, Microsoft would have had its own protocol and Novell's IPX would still be around," Oltsik says.

"It would have slowed down the move to client/server in the 1990s," Mehra says. "Minicomputer and mid-range systems would have stayed a lot longer with us."

It may have also delayed the onset of 100Gbps speeds, Kerravala says. Token Ring increased in increments of 4x while Ethernet speeds increased 10x, though there were specifications being defined for 100Mbps and Gigabit Token Ring in the late 1990s.

Online TV may also have been slower to emerge, Kerravala says, with Token Ring in the LAN, FDDI in the metro and ATM in the WAN.

And IBM - not Cisco -- may have been the 800-pound gorilla in networking if Token Ring had won out in the LAN. IBM was long an advocate of Token Ring but that advocacy, and a huge chunk of IBM's networking business, succumbed to Ethernet and Cisco in 1999.

"IBM would have doubled in size because it would have controlled another standard," says ESG's Oltsik. "Cisco wouldn't have had the chance to ride the standards wave like it did. They and everyone else would have been in IBM's shadow."

And the spread of wireless LANs may have been hampered as well had Ethernet failed, says IDC's Mehra.

"Wi-Fi is an easier overlay over Ethernet than over disparate, incongruous networks," he says. "I don't think it would have been as pervasive" had Ethernet not become the networking standard.

What is likely, though, had Ethernet failed is the success of systems integrators and professional services organizations. They would be doing five to 10 times the business they do today tying together disparate technologies in the LAN, MAN and WAN, Mehra says.

"The complexity would be that much more," he says. "We'd have a mesh of different networks across geographies. We'd need an army of engineers and support people to run the network."

Amen to that, Kerravala says.

"It would have been a substantially more complicated world," he says.

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 25 years, 21 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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