The Origination of Ethernet at Xerox PARC and IEEE Standardization

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The Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) has birthed many groundbreaking computer innovations over the years, including the Alto—the first personal computer with a graphical user interface—and the initial laser printer. The research hub is also celebrated for conceiving Ethernet, a networking solution allowing rapid data transmission over coaxial cables. Ethernet later became the conventional wired local area network globally, extensively utilized in professional and domestic settings. This year it was distinguished as an IEEE Milestone, half a century after its origination at PARC.

Envisioning a Network for Connected Computers

The progression of Ethernet started in 1973 when Charles P. Thacker, engaged in the Alto computer’s architecture, pictured a network permitting Altos to connect with each other and also with laser printers and PARC’s portal to ARPANET. PARC expert Robert M. Metcalfe, an IEEE Fellow, assumed the test of creating this networking technology. He was soon joined in this endeavor by computer scientist David Boggs.

Criteria for a Fast, Scalable Network

Metcalfe and Boggs established two standards: the network required sufficient speed to sustain their laser printer and the capacity to link hundreds of computers within a single facility.

ALOHAnet inspires key design decisions

The Ethernet plan was motivated by the Additive Links Online Hawaii Area Network (ALOHAnet), a radio-based infrastructure at the University of Hawai’i where computers broadcast packets preceded by recipient addresses over a communal channel as soon as there was data to transmit. If two messages crashed, the originating computers would bide time randomly before attempting again.

Metcalfe detailed his proposition for what was then entitled the Alto Aloha Network in an acclaimed memo to coworkers. Employing coaxial cables rather than radio waves would enable quicker data transfer and constrain interference. The cables also signified that computers could enter or leave the network without interrupting the whole system, Metcalfe said in a 2004 oral chronicle for the IEEE History Center. Additionally, you can also read about- 5G vs. 4G: How Much Faster Is It Really?

Tap Enable Easy Expansion

“There was something called a cable television tap, which provides a way to tap into a coax without slicing it,” Metcalfe described. “Thus, [Boggs and I] opted for coax as our communication medium. In [the] memo, I explained the operational principles—greatly distributed, no central oversight, a single piece of ‘ether.’”

Inventing Ethernet in 1973

Metcalfe and Boggs crafted the inaugural version of what’s now termed Ethernet in 1973. It conveyed data at up to 2.94 megabits per second, “fast enough to supply the laser printer and straightforward to transmit through the coax,” Metcalfe told the IEEE History Center.

Vampire Taps Connect Nodes

A 9.5-millimeter-thick and stiff coaxial cable was set in the corridor of PARC’s facility. The 500-meter cable had 100 transceiver nodes linked to it with N connectors, referred to as vampire taps. Each small, hard-shelled tap featured two probes that “bit” the cable’s outer protection to contact the copper core. Thus, new nodes could be supplemented while current links were active.

Interfaces enable connections

Every vampire tap contained a D-type connector socket—a plug with nine pins matching a socket with nine jacks. The sockets permitted Alto computers, printers, and file servers to network.

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Network Interface Card Enables Communication

To facilitate communication between gadgets, Metcalfe and Boggs fashioned the first high-speed network interface card (NIC)—a circuit panel connected to a computer’s motherboard with an Ethernet port.

Renamed from Alto Aloha Network

The experts altered the network’s designation from Alto Aloha Network to Ethernet to clarify its capacity to assist any computer, reflecting a remark by Thacker about coaxial cable being “captive ether,” PARC investigator Alan Kay reminisced.

Metcalfe, Boggs, Thacker, and Butler W. Lampson secured a U.S. patent in 1978 for their creation.

Collaboration yields 10 Mbps Ethernet

They proceeded to refine Ethernet, releasing a 10 Mbps version over coaxial cable in 1980, in alliance with Intel and Digital Equipment Corp. (DEC) researchers to institute an industry-wide adaptation.

IEEE Standardization  

Ethernet’s commercial accessibility began in 1980, quickly becoming the standard LAN technology. To provide computer corporations with an Ethernet framework, it was adopted as an IEEE 802 Local Area Network Standard in June 1983. Currently, the extensive IEEE 802 family incorporates 67 ratified benchmarks, with 49 in progress. The committee collaborates with global standards bodies to publish certain IEEE 802 guidelines as international standards. If you want you can also read- Glenn Lurie: The Future of the Internet of Things (IoT)

Milestone Recognition 

A plaque recognizing Ethernet will be exhibited at PARC, reading:

“Ethernet wired LAN was invented at Xerox Palo Alto Research Center in 1973, inspired by ALOHAnet and ARPANET. In 1980, Xerox, DEC, and Intel published 10 Mbps Ethernet over coax as the IEEE 802.3-1985 Standard. Later expanded for higher speeds, twisted-pair, optical, and wireless media, Ethernet is now ubiquitous.”

Overseen by the IEEE History Center and backed by donors, the Milestone program highlights major technical breakthroughs globally. The nomination was sponsored by the IEEE Santa Clara Valley Section, with a dedication event planned at PARC on May 18th.

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