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Ethernet turns 50, but its voyage has only begun

News Analysis
May 22, 20238 mins
Cloud ComputingNetwork SwitchesNetworking

With the tech world celebrating Ethernet's 50th anniversary this week, the technology is adapting to evolving network demands as varied as AI, distributed computing, and virtual reality.

Yellow ethernet cables plugged into a rack

You’d be hard pressed to find another technology that has been as useful, successful, and ultimately influential as Ethernet, and as it celebrates its 50th anniversary this week, it is clear that Ethernet’s journey is far from over.

Since its invention by Bob Metcalf and David Boggs back in 1973, Ethernet has continuously been expanded and adapted to become the go-to Layer 2 protocol in computer networking across industries.

“To me, the most interesting aspect of Ethernet is its universality, meaning it has been deployed literally everywhere including under the oceans and in outer space.  Ethernet use cases are still expanding with new physical layers—for example high-speed Ethernet for cameras in vehicles,” said Andreas Bechtolsheim, cofounder of Sun Microsystems and Arista Networks, now chairman and chief development officer for Arista. 

“The most impactful area for Ethernet at this point is inside large cloud data centers which have shown high growth including interconnecting AI/ML clusters which are ramping up quickly,” Bechtolsheim said.

Ethernet has broad applications.

Flexibility and adaptability are important characteristics of the technology, which he said, “has become the default answer for any communication network, whether it is connecting devices or computers, which means that in nearly all cases there is no need to invent yet another network.”

When COVID hit, Ethernet was an important part of how businesses responded, said Mikael Holmberg, distinguished system engineer with Extreme Networks. “Looking back at the sudden shift to remote work during the global COVID outbreak, one of Ethernet’s most transformative applications is undoubtedly its role in facilitating a distributed workforce,” he said.

That shift put pressure for more bandwidth on communication service providers. “This demand was driven by enterprise employees working remotely, students transitioning to online education, and even increased online gaming due to social distancing mandates,” Holmberg said. “In essence, thanks to Ethernet being the foundational technology used for the internet, it enabled individuals to carry out a variety of tasks efficiently from the comfort of their own homes.”

Such widespread development and Ethernet’s huge ecosystems has led to unique applications—from use on the International Space Station, the latest in F-35 fighter jets and Abrams tanks to oceanic research.

Ethernet has been used in space exploration for more than 20 years, including with the space station, satellites, and Mars missions, said Peter Jones, chairperson of the Ethernet Alliance, and a distinguished engineer with Cisco. “Ethernet facilitates seamless connectivity between mission-critical subsystems, like sensors, cameras, controls, and telemetry inside vehicles and devices, such as satellites and probes. It’s also a key part of ground-to-space and space-to-ground communications.”

As a more capable replacement for legacy Controller Area Network (CAN) and Local Interconnect Network (LIN) protocols, Ethernet has become the backbone of in-vehicle networks, Jones said, including cars and drones. “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs) that enable environmental monitoring of atmospheric conditions, tides and temperatures, and next-generation autonomous surveillance and security systems all rely on Ethernet,” Jones said.

Ethernet grew to replace storage protocols, and today is the basis of high performance compute such as in the foundation of the Frontier supercomputer with HPE Slingshot – currently ranked number one among the world’s fastest supercomputers.  Almost all ‘specialized buses’ of data communication, across all industries, are being replaced by Ethernet, said Mark Pearson, HPE Aruba Networking switching chief technologist and HPE Fellow.

“Ethernet made things simple. Simple connectors, simple to make it work on existing twisted pair cabling, simple frame types that were easy to debug, simple to encapsulate traffic on the medium, simple access control mechanism,” Pearson said. 

This is turn made every product category featuring Ethernet faster, cheaper, easier to troubleshoot, Pearson said, including:  

  • Embedded NICs in motherboards
  • Ethernet Switches of any size, speed flavor combo
  • Gigabit Ethernet NIC cards that pioneered jumbo frames 
  • Ethernet NIC and Switch optimizations for all kinds of use cases
  • Features like EtherChannel – channel bonding sets of ports in a stat-mux config 

Ethernet development presses on.

Its future value is also reflected in the amount of high-level resources dedicated to continuing the technical work to improve Ethernet’s features, said John D’Ambrosia, Chair, IEEE P802.3dj Task Force, which is developing the next generation of Ethernet electrical and optical signaling. 

“It is just fascinating to me to watch the development and the way Ethernet brings the industry together to solve problems—and this cooperation has been going on a very long time and will only get stronger as time goes on,” D’Ambrosia, said.

While the ever-increasing top speed of Ethernet grabs a lot of attention, there is just as much effort to develop and enhance slower speed 2.5Gbps, 5Gbps, and 25Gbps Ethernet, which has led to development of a rather large market, to say the least.

According to Sameh Boujelbene, vice president, data center and campus Ethernet switch market research for Dell’Oro Group, nine billion Ethernet switch ports have shipped during the last two decades, for a total market value of well over $450 billion. “Ethernet has played a pivotal role in facilitating connectivity and connecting things and devices across a wide range of industries but, more importantly, in connecting people worldwide,” Boujelbene said.

The IEEE lists future expansions on its web site that include: short reach, optical interconnects based on 100 Gbps wavelengths; Precision Time Protocol (PTP) Timestamping clarifications; Automotive Optical Multigig; Next steps in Single-Pair ecosystem; 100 Gbps over Dense Wavelength Division Multiplexing (DWDM) systems; 400 Gbps over DWDM systems; a study group proposal for Automotive 10G+ Copper; and 200 Gbps, 400 Gbps, 800 Gbps, and 1.6 Tbps Ethernet.

“The Ethernet portfolio continues to expand, encompassing higher speeds and game-changing advances such as Power over Ethernet (PoE), Single Pair Ethernet (SPE), Time-Sensitive Networking (TSN), and more,” Boujelbene said. (SPE defines a way to handle Ethernet transmission via a single pair of copper wires. TSN is a standard way to provide deterministic and guaranteed delivery of data over a network.)

Evolving technologies rely on Ethernet

As cloud services, including virtual reality (VR), progress, managing latency is becoming of paramount importance, Holmberg said. “Addressing this issue will likely involve the use of Ethernet coupled with the Precision Time Protocol, enabling Ethernet to evolve into a connectivity technology with defined latency objectives,” he said.  

Support of large-scale distributed systems where synchronized operations are essential requires timing precision on the order of hundreds of nanoseconds. “A prime example of this is seen in the Telecommunications sector, particularly in the realm of 5G networks and eventually 6G networks,” Holmberg said.

Ethernet networks that offer predefined latency could also benefit enterprise LANs, particularly to address the requirements of technologies like AI, he said, but also to synchronize GPUs across data centers. “In essence, the future of Ethernet seems entwined with emerging technological paradigms, shaping how they function and evolve,” Holmberg said.

Setting up the infrastructure for AI computing and application development will also be a key area of Ethernet expansion, D’Ambrosia said. AI requires many servers that require low-latency connections, “So, the high-density interconnect becomes a big deal. And because you’re trying to do things faster than the latency becomes an issue because you got to solve these problems and use error correction to get additional channel performance.  There are lots of issues there.”

New services that are driven by AI—such as generative artwork—will require enormous infrastructure investments that use Ethernet as a foundational communications layer, said Jones.

AI and cloud computing are the enablers for the continued growth of the services expected from devices and the network, Jones added. “These new tools will continue to propel the evolution of technology consumption in and out of the work environment,” Jones said.

Even the expansion of wireless networks will require more use of Ethernet. “In the first place, you cannot have wireless without wired. All wireless access points require a wired infrastructure,” said Greg Dorai, senior vice president, Cisco Networking. “And the massive-scale data centers that power the cloud, AI, and other technologies of the future are all connected together by wires and fiber, all going back to Ethernet switches.”

The need to reduce Ethernet power draw is also driving its development.

For example, Energy-Efficient Ethernet, which powers down links when there is not a lot of traffic, would be useful when minimizing power consumption is essential, said George Zimmerman: Chair, IEEE P802.3dg 100Mb/s Long-Reach Single Pair Ethernet Task Force. That includes in automobiles, where network traffic is asymmetric or intermittent. “Energy efficiency is a big deal in all areas of Ethernet. It controls the complexity of many of the things we do,” he said. That increasingly includes industrial control systems and other operational technology, “however, we have a long way to go before it matches Ethernet’s ubiquity in IT.”

Because of its ubiquity, vast numbers of IT pros are trained in using Ethernet, which makes it attractive in areas that currently use proprietary protocols. So rather than relying on a relatively small pool of people familiar with them, organizations can draw from a much larger pool and tap into the decades of Ethernet development. “And so Ethernet becomes this foundation that the engineering world is built on,” Zimmerman said.

That status projects continued development of the technology and its expanding uses.

“Whatever the future holds, Bob Metcalf’s Ethernet will be there connecting everything together, even if it may be in a form even Bob wouldn’t recognize,” Dorai said. “Who knows? My avatar, trained to say what I want it to, may be traveling over Ethernet to appear in a press conference for the 60-year anniversary.”