10:40 AM
Paul Travis
Paul Travis

Ethernet's Future Is Bright

Inventor expects big things from the technology in the future, including speeds of 100 Gbps

Bob Metcalfe, who invented what's now known as Ethernet, the technology employed by just about every data network in use today, received the National Medal of Technology from President Bush at a White House ceremony last week.

Ethernet will help to bring about the video Internet, inventor Metcalfe says.

Ethernet will help to bring about the video Internet, inventor Metcalfe says.

Photo by Michael Quon/Zuma Press
The widespread use of Ethernet is a key reason Metcalfe was the recipient of the honor. He never expected his invention to become as ubiquitous as it has, but since it has, Metcalfe expects even bigger things from the technology. "I'm willing to admit that I had no idea that Ethernet would get as big as it has," he says. Last year, 200 million Ethernet ports were shipped.

Ethernet started out slow, but continues to gain speed. At first, it ran at 2.94 Mbps, because the clock on the backplane of an Altos computer ran at that speed. Today, Ethernet can run at 10 Gbps, and Metcalfe sees no reason why it can't run at much faster speeds in the future. As more telecom companies offer Ethernet services, the technology is becoming a carrier standard and not just a LAN standard, Metcalfe says. "That means we may have to stop at 40 Gbps on the way to 100 Gbps," he says. "Phone companies like to increase their speeds by a factor of four for every new generation, while data folks like to increase speeds by a factor of 10. It's not clear who will win out."

Metcalfe talks about the technology going in four directions: up, down, over, and across. "Up" means that Ethernet will get faster and faster. "Down" means reaching out to the many computers that aren't connected. "There are 8 billion microprocessors shipped every year, and 98% of them aren't networked," he says. "Over" refers to wireless. "There will be more Ethernet running over Wi-Fi and WiMax wireless networks," he says. And "across" means serving as a bridge between local and wide area networks.

He also believes that Ethernet will help to bring about the video Internet. "Video is coming," he says. "The video Internet with video mail and video messaging and videoconferencing and video phones and video merchandising. The public Internet will more and more be able to carry real-time video."

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