12 Important Moments in the Evolution from Ethernet to Metro Ethernet

These days, sharing information is most often done over an Ethernet; from the smallest office to the largest corporation, from the single schoolroom to the largest university campus, Ethernet is clearly the networking technology of choice.”- Brocade Communications Systems, Ethernet whitepaper

We asked a few weeks ago if you could imagine the world without the Internet. Now, try to imagine computer networking without the Ethernet protocol.

Almost impossible, right?

Since its invention only a few decades ago, Ethernet use has exploded in usage and growth and has become one of the most popular forms of networking across the world.

It’s also changed drastically, too, from an intrabuilding/intra-campus Local Area Network (LAN) technology to the newest iteration: Ethernet on Wide Area Networks (WANs), also known as Metro Ethernet.

There’s no doubt about it: computer networking wouldn’t be what it is today had it not been for Ethernet or Metro Ethernet. In fact, even Wi-Fi wouldn’t even exist without it.

Curious to know more? Here are 12 of the most important moments in the evolution from Ethernet to Metro Ethernet.

1) Norman Abramson and his team develop the ALOHA System at the University of Hawaii in the 1960s.

It’s only fitting that the history of Ethernet begins with the Hawaiian word for “hello.”

In the 1960s, Dr. Norman Abramson, a professor in electrical engineering at the University of Hawaii, started working on developing a radio network to connect different computers together. This became known as the ALOHA System.

Here’s how the ALOHA System worked: Aloha stations would communicate with each other across a radio channel by sending, acknowledging, and receiving data over radio waves instead of telephone wires.

The ALOHA System was extremely important because it served as the foundation for the invention of Ethernet a few years later.

2) In 1973, Bob Metcalfe invents the Ethernet network system at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC).

It was with Bob Metcalfe and his team at PARC that Ethernet first came to be. The goal of Metcalfe and his team was to develop a system to network PARC’s hundreds of different computers together.

Xerox also needed a system that was powerful enough to drive their PC laser printers (which had also been invented at PARC). Metcalfe’s invention – built on the ALOHA System network – was Ethernet.

3) Metcalfe and David Boggs publish “Ethernet: Distributed Packet Switching for Local Computer Networks” in the Communications of the Association for Computing Machinery (CACM) in 1976.

This milestone paper summarizes all their previous work and presents the concept of Ethernet to the world. In this paper, Boggs and Metcalfe define Ethernet as “a branching broadcast communication system for carrying digital data among locally distributed computing stations.”

They also highlight the general benefits of Ethernet they found in their experiment which would be replicated outside the laboratory and in the real world: reliability, satisfactory installation and maintenance, and flexibility.

4) In December 1977, Metcalfe, Boggs, Butler W. Lampson, and Charles P. Thacker’s “Multipoint Data Communication with Collision Detection” receives U.S. patent number 4,063,220.

This patent was for their “Apparatus for enabling communications between two or more data processing stations comprising a communication cable arranged in branched segments including taps distributed thereover” – or, in other words, Ethernet.

5) In 1980, Metcalfe and the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), Intel, and Xerox joint vendor consortium publish the standard for the 10 Mbps Ethernet (DIX standard).

This was particularly important because this meant that Ethernet was no longer owned by or limited to Xerox only. Charles E. Spurgeon and Joann Zimmerman write in Ethernet: The Definitive Guide that “the era of open computer communications based on Ethernet typology began in 1980” with this standard.

Outside companies now had the ability to buy the license for Ethernet for $1,000, and two years later, Xerox surrendered its Ethernet trademark, thus opening up the availability for Ethernet as a LAN standard.

5) The Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) form a committee to standardize Ethernet in 1980 and publish their first standard (IEEE 802.3) in 1985.

IEEE essentially started developing a LAN standard at the same time. Their 1985 standard was entitled “IEEE 802.3 Carrier Sense Multiple Access with Collision Detection (CMSA/CD) Access Method and Physical Layer Specifications” and has since become known as the official standard for Ethernet carrying on into today.

It is worth noting that what we refer to as Ethernet in 2018 encompasses both the DIX standard and the IEEE 802.3 standard.

6) Twisted-pair Ethernet is invented in the late 1980s.

Originally, Ethernet implementations consisted of coaxial cable media systems. These were fine for smaller groups of computers, but they proved to have several issues as Ethernet grew in popularity. The coaxial cable media systems were found to be hard to install, connect, and manage.

This issue was resolved when twisted-pair Ethernet was invented. With twisted-pair Ethernet, any computer in a LAN system is connected to one centralized point.

7) The 10BaseF standard is approved by IEEE in 1994 so that data centers can use fiber-optic networks instead of copper unshielded cabling.

This was the first standard to use fiber-optic cables instead of copper cables and paved the way for the growth of fiber-optic networks across the world.

The 10BaseF standard led to an Ethernet connectivity that was faster, more impervious to outside conditions, and more reliable than previous networks.

8) In 1995, Fast Ethernet – or Ethernet at 100 Mbps – is invented and adopted by IEEE as a new Ethernet standard.

As computers became faster, the need for increased Ethernet speed became more apparent. Hence: invention of the Fast Ethernet (100 Mbps) standard.

After being adopted by IEEE in 1995, Fast Ethernet was soon used in many networks on both fiber-optic and twisted-pair copper cable systems.

9) Ethernet becomes even faster in 1998 with the Gigabit Ethernet standard.

Thought 100 Mbps was fast enough? Guess again. Only three years after IEEE adopted the 100 Mbps  standard, the speed was increased a second time to 1000 Mbps.

Known as the Gigabit Ethernet standard, the increased network speed continued to revolutionize computer networking on a global scale.

10) The Metro Ethernet Forum (MEF) is formed in 2001.

Now “the driving force enabling agile, assured, and orchestrated communications services across a global ecosystem of automated networks,” MEF was first created to develop services for enterprise companies and organizations who used metropolitan networks.

11) In 2003, MEF publishes its famous whitepaper, “Metro Ethernet Services: A Technical Overview.”

In this whitepaper, author Ralph Santitoro defines what Metro Ethernet is, its various types, and the different benefits of Metro Ethernet.

Essentially, Metro Ethernet expands what was originally a LAN system to Ethernet over WANs, thereby bringing this technology to more users.

MEF defines two basic Metro Ethernet service types: E-Line (Ethernet Line Service) and E-LAN (Ethernet LAN Service).

  • E-Line is a point-to-point, private-line Ethernet service that connects two sites together through a User Network Interface (UNI).
  • E-LAN offers multipoint connectivity between two (or more) UNIs.   

These services are still around 15 years later and more popular than ever. In fact, we offer both E-Line and E-LAN services over our Metropolitan Area Network, or MAN, along with our third MEF-complaint service: E-Tree.  

Lastly, the benefits MEF pointed out have proved to be true into today: ease of use, cost-effectiveness (i.e., reduced CapEx and OpEx), and flexibility.

12) “Carrier Ethernet” is defined and demonstrated to the world by MEF in 2005.

MEF defined “Carrier Ethernet” as “a ubiquitous, standardized carrier-class Service and Network defined by five attributes that distinguish it from the familiar LAN-based Ethernet.” These five attributes include:

  • Standardized services
  • Quality of service
  • Service management
  • Scalability
  • Reliability

Another way of looking at Carrier Ethernet is how MEF defines it for service providers:

  • A set of certified network elements that connect to transport these services
  • A platform for value-added services
  • A standardized service for all users

MEF demonstrated Carrier Ethernet to multiple vendors that same year at the Globalcomm conference, and it has since become a standard all over the world.  


And what has happened since?

Prior to the development of Metro Ethernet, most organizations would have Ethernet LANs. On WANs, they would have to go through a router that would support TDM T1s/T3s, SONET OC-3 to OC-192, ATM or Resilient Packet Rings for the WAN. 

This was expensive and created delays in the network due to the need to convert between protocols.  

The development of Ethernet in the WAN (Metro Ethernet) has exponentially improved network performance and reduced costs by eliminating the need for these protocol transitions.

So now, with Metro Ethernet services, Independents Fiber Network can provide our customers with the right, reliable, and customizable connectivity they need over our MAN. 

Imagining computer networking without the Ethernet protocol and, in turn, the evolution from Ethernet to Metro Ethernet is nearly impossible. Because without Ethernet, we wouldn’t have the connectivity and networking that we do today.