Q&A: Bob Metcalfe, Inventor of Ethernet

Bob Metcalfe reflects on the great LAN wars.

Bob Metcalfe is a Big Deal in the history of computing because he invented Ethernet, the local area network that was consecrated as a IEEE standard in March, 1980, and is now approaching—by his rough reckoning -- some one billion connections and over 30 years as the most successful network standard ever devised. If you doubt that lofty claim, ask yourself this: How many million desktop and PC Notebook computers have shipped with an RJ45 Ethernet jack since 1982, when the 802.3 Ethernet standard was approved?

Metcalfe takes it all in stride. His attitude seems to be, "Ethernet been very good to me," and how can you argue with that? We should all have such a never-ending payday. And even if he hadn't come up with Ethernet, he probably would have concocted some other perfectly clever invention that would have propelled him to monumental riches and eternal fame.

Virtualization Review editor Bruce Hoard was a staff writer for Computerworld in the early '80s when the great LAN Standardization Wars were being waged, and he recently interviewed Metcalfe -- well, gave him a quick call and shot him some e-mail questions -- to see how he was feeling about his 30-year-old baby.

Q: Back in March, what reflections did you have on the 30th anniversary of the Ethernet 802.3 standard?
A:
I went to IEEE 802's 30th in Orlando to say thank you. Thanks to the folks who worked so long, so hard, and with such great success standardizing various Ethernets over the last 30 years. I'm not sure everybody there was happy I showed up, but I was thankful anyway.

Q: Ethernet, WangNet, Arcnet, baseband, broadband, carrier sense multiple access with collision detect, Token Ring... This was an interesting cast of characters, and as a staff writer at Computerworld, I was covering all the Machiavellian moves the various vendors and assorted players were making under the guise of developing a LAN standard. However, it seemed more like an orgy of self- interest than a sincere effort to serve users. Walk through all the thrusts and parries along with your own unvarnished opinions of who was doing what to whom.
A:
Part of why I might not have been entirely welcome in Orlando was because of the battles fought as 802 accumulated dots. Ethernet got 802.3. The General Motors Token Bus (RIP) got 802.4. The IBM Token Ring (RIP) got 802.5.  And even within the 802.3 Ethernet camp there were sub-camps. It took two bloody years before 19 companies agreed to adopt an IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standard, in late 1982. By then, my company, 3Com, was shipping the first Ethernet NIC for the IBM PC -- the EtherLink, for around $1,000 on coaxial cable at 10Mbps with external transceivers.

Ethernet was invented at Xerox Parc on May 22, 1973. 3Com Corporation was founded on June 4, 1979 to promote "computer communication compatibility," including the proposed new standards, Ethernet, Unix, and TCP/IP. By 1981 there were people buying Ethernet whom I did not know personally. 3Com went public in March 1984. By 1985 there were people INVENTING Ethernet whom I had not met (they get too little credit and I get plenty). 3Com did over $5B in revenue in 1999 during the Internet Bubble. 3Com merged with HP in 2010. All these outcomes were based on the decision by DEC, Intel and Xerox to create IEEE 802 to make Ethernet an open standard. Thank you.

Q: If you had this whole development process to go through again, how would you do it differently?
A:
Ethernet is probably approaching a billion connections, if you count all the flavors, including 802.11, better known as Wireless Ethernet, but best known as WiFi. Thank you 802! So, if I could go back in time and change anything, I wouldn't risk it. Well, I wish I had been better at selling IBM on Ethernet in 1980 -- it would have saved a lot of trouble over the next couple of decades.

Q: What is it about the 802.3 standard that has made it so durable and adaptable, and how has it been amended over time?
A:
The 802.3 standard, better known as Ethernet, killed the various token networks because we were sincerely committed to open standards and interoperability. It also helped that Ethernet understands its place in the protocol layers of the Internet, and was therefore faster and cheaper.

Q: What is its future?
A:
Ethernet's future is summarized with five prepositions: UP, INTO, ACROSS, OVER, and DOWN. Ethernet is going UP in the LAN -- now approaching 100Gbps. It started at 2.94Mbps in 1973. Ethernet is going INTO the WAN, slowly killing any remaining SONET. Ethernet is going ACROSS the "telechasm" between WAN and LAN, as Carrier Ethernet proliferates. Ethernet is going OVER the air, as WiFi and WiMax. And Ethernet is going DOWN to network embedded micro-controllers -- for example as ZigBee/802.15.4. Long live Ethernet!

About the Author

Bruce Hoard is the new editor of Virtualization Review. Prior to taking this post, he was founding editor of Network World and spent 20 years as a freelance writer and editor in the IT industry.

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