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Metcalfe: Ethernet Rules!

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
5/23/2003

Ethernet has had a long career of bobbing, rope-a-doping, and taking down competing technologies such as Token Ring. Now that it's turning 30 years old, has the champ still got game?

Absolutely, says Ethernet co-creator Bob Metcalfe. Speaking yesterday at a 30th birthday celebration for Ethernet held at the Xerox Corp. (NYSE: XRX) Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), he said Ethernet's still got the power to go 15 rounds with anybody.

Here's how Metcalfe sees Ethernet faring against the three latest contenders -- or, in his words, the "three new Godzillas it's about to crush."

  • Fibre Channel: "It's doomed. It's dead. It's beginning to smell." Metcalfe sees IP eventually winning the SAN battle, especially once 10-Gigabit Ethernet starts to deploy.

  • Sonet: Same kind of story, with a mumbled aside about how the phone companies continue forcing this one on us. Better to inject the network with optical Ethernet wherever possible.

  • Cellular: With 802.11 ("wireless Ethernet," to many) access points popping up like dandelions, cellular doesn't have a chance when it comes to data -- although, Metcalfe conceded, the two will coexist for a while.


Metcalfe, a general partner with Polaris Venture Partners was the star of the afternoon program, held for an invite-only crowd of 300 or so Silicon Valley luminaries and media (see 3Com Salutes Ethernet at 30). He also moderated a panel of Valley vets who swapped stories about Ethernet's old days and the struggle to get the protocol accepted.

As legend has it, Ethernet was born in a 1973 memo by Metcalfe, who invented the concept with fellow PARC researcher Dave Boggs. And it's been a battle ever since. Metcalfe rattled off a few dozen challengers Ethernet has faced: other PARC protocols, technologies from other companies such as Apple Computer Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) or Hewlett-Packard Co. (NYSE: HPQ), and political rivals within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE) 802.3 standardization efforts.

So, what's kept Ethernet on top? Well, it's partly a semantic trick: "Ethernet has changed and changed and changed -- and thank goodness, they still use the same word for it."

But like Doctor Who's regenerations, Ethernet has retained some core characteristics. It's simple and flexible, and that's helped its longevity.

In fact, Metcalfe said he chose the word "Ether" because he didn't want Ethernet to be associated with a particular media such as co-ax cables or copper twisted pair. That flexibility helped keep Ethernet relevant as technology advanced. "It planted the idea that [Ethernet] was going to evolve."

(By contrast, a bad word choice was "collision," used by Metcalfe in describing how traffic shares the ether. It caused trouble early on. "People know what collisions are. They're metal and glass and blood flowing everywhere. They didn't want collisions in their network.")

But the real reason for Ethernet's success wasn't so much in the technology as in the way it was sold: " 'Ethernet' is a business model," Metcalfe said.

The model was radical for its time: Ethernet was licensed for cheap, but it was enforced like a standard.

During the panel session, PARC colleague David Liddle, now general partner at U.S. Venture Partners, said Xerox charged a one-time license fee of just $1,000. That's in contrast to the huge fees associated with Token Ring.

Xerox's stipulation was that the technology couldn't be changed -- it had to interoperate with all other Ethernet implementations. "Thus we made a playing field in which we could all thrive and compete," Liddle said.

The low price helped Ethernet spread and fueled an entire industry of startups. And the continued interoperability between generations helped its foothold grow.

— Craig Matsumoto, Senior Editor, Light Reading
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