Ethernet — a
networking protocol name for the ages
Michelson, Morley, and Metcalfe
In the beginning, Ethernet was optional. When Bob Metcalfe and David Boggs cooked up their network protocol at Xerox PARC in the early 1970s, it was meant to connect the research haven’s now famous Alto machines — but only if researchers felt the need. “Each scientist would get a kind of Alto order form,” Metcalfe remembers, “and you had to check a box if you wanted Ethernet.”
Then, one afternoon, with maybe ten Altos on the desks of ten PARC researchers, someone accidentally disconnected a networking cable. When ten people stood up to ask “What happened?,” Metcalfe realized his fledgling network protocol might be a keeper. “From then on,” he says, “Ethernet was not an option.”
More than thirty years later, Metcalfe went looking for a new Ethernet cable, strolling into an everyday American electronics retailer. “The woman at the cash register took me to a twenty-foot-wide wall filled with cables and said ’What color do you want?’”
After Metcalfe brokered an epic Ethernet group handshake between Intel, Xerox, and DEC in the late 1970s and brought his protocol to market through a new company he called 3Com, Ethernet shed its optional status on a global scale, evolving from LAN hardware into mainstay internet plumbing. In 2008, according to IDC, 350 million Ethernet switch ports were pushed out into the world. And that doesn’t include WiFi gear.
Last year, in honor of his Ethernet exploits, Silicon Valley’s Computer History Museum anointed Metcalfe with its annual Fellow Award, and this week, he turned up at the Mountain View geek mecca to reminisce — and, in that inimitably-opinionated Metcalfe way, trumpet his version of the future.
Harvard’s dark little heart
Metcalfe joined the Palo Alto Research Center in 1972, just after some Harvard profs failed his PhD thesis defense. His research focused on, yes, packet communication. And packet communication wasn’t a place where he and Harvard saw eye-to-eye.
When he first arrived at Harvard, Metcalfe offered to plug the venerable university into the Arpanet, a fledgling research network that would one day evolve into the modern interwebs. But Harvard declined.
“Harvard to this day is ambivalent about engineering, in their dark little heart of hearts,” he tells The Reg. “When I said I wanted to get them on the Arpanet, I was behaving like an engineer in a department of applied mathematics, and they said 'No, we’re going to hire a company do it.’”
That company was Bolt, Beranek, and Newman, a major cog in the rise of the Apranet. But the way Metcalfe tells it, BBN promptly hired another grad student to do all the work he was willing to do for free.
So, he went down the road to MIT, his undergraduate alma mater, offering his networking services to their DEC PDP-10 mainframe. MIT said “Yes,” and Metcalfe spent his Harvard career doing research on MIT’s Arpanet IMP (interface message processor). In the end, his Harvard overlords were not amused.
“I was — I still am — naive about politics,” Metcalfe says. “I didn’t really understand the process. The professors should have noticed this, but they didn’t. I showed up for my thesis defense and they gunned me down.”
But a new job was already in place at PARC — the Xerox research center that would give rise to everything from laser printing to the GUI interface — and PARC agreed to let him finish his PhD there. This, Metcalfe says, is the sort of luck that turns a life into history.
“My first stroke of luck was being born to my parents. My second stroke of luck was being given the networking job in a building full of personal computers. This was a problem that had never before occurred in the history of the world. The solution was not as amazing as the luck of getting that assignment.”
Into the ether
Ethernet was born on May 22, 1973. Or at least the name was. Metcalfe and his networking “Bobbsey Twin” David Boggs coined the term in a PARC memo circulated that spring day. Before that, they called it the Alto Aloha network, after PARC’s Mac-spawning experimental PC and the Alohanet, a University of Hawaii wireless network that served as a primary influence.
Before its existence was summarily disproven by American physicists Albert Michelson and Edward Morley in the late 1800s, the science world assumed that light traveled through an unseen medium known as the “luminiferous ether.” The first networked Altos were nicknamed Michelson and Morley.
“The whole concept of an omnipresent, completely passive-medium for the propagation of magnetic waves didn’t exist. It was fictional,” Metcalfe tells us. “But when David and I were building this thing at PARC, we planned to run a cable up and down every corridor to actually create an omnipresent, completely-passive medium for the propagation of electromagnetic waves. In this case, data packets.”
It’s one of computer history’s great monikers. And they are few and far between. Metcalfe acknowledges that technically, today’s Ethernet bears little resemblance to the sub-3Mbps protocol that moved packets between Michelson and Morley. It’s the name that survives.
Metcalfe the matchmaker
But it survives in large part because Metcalfe played matchmaker with three tech kingpins of the pre-PC era. In the late 1970s, after Metcalfe left PARC, legendary DEC engineer Gordon Bell urged him to build a DEC-ified version of Ethernet that wouldn’t run afoul of Xerox’s patents. Metcalfe balked at the idea, but it soon sparked another.
“Neither one of us remembers whose idea it was,” Metcalfe says. “But at one point, one of us said 'Why don’t we just call up Xerox and work with them?’ Xerox used DEC computers in their high-end printers and DEC needed printers for its computer people. The best thing to do was work together and then you don’t have to subvert the patents.”
Shortly thereafter, Metcalfe ran into an Intel engineer looking for new things he could build with the company’s new PMOS manufacturing process. Naturally, Metcalfe suggested an Ethernet chip. “Next thing you know, I had DEC, Xerox, and Intel in the same room.”
On September 30, 1980, the three companies published the so-called “blue book” Ethernet spec. And five years later, after more than a few complaints from IBM and General Motors, the IEEE transformed the spec into a standard: IEEE 802.3. The standards body also pushed out standards based on separate specs from Big Blue (Token Ring) and GM (Token Bus). But history was kindest to Ethernet.
Ethernet survived, Metcalfe says, because IBM undermined the openness of its own open standard. Like Harvard, Big Blue was burdened by a “dark little heart.” Metcalfe’s 3Com offered Token Ring as well as Ethernet — in fact, it shipped a Token Ring before IBM — but he claims that IBM insured that compatibility was always a problem.
“IBM had no intention of creating a standard,” Metcalfe says. “In their dark little heart they didn’t really believe in it. We shipped before them, but even still, IBM always had 90 per cent market share — because they were a big powerful company but also because they didn’t have their heart in openness. They played all sorts of screwy games with higher level incompatibilities, so that when you tried to sell a Token Ring card into an IBM installation, it would never really work out.”
Life’s highest calling
Twenty years on, after a decade at the 3Com helm and another as a paper-chewing tech columnist, Metcalfe has transformed himself yet again. Today, he’s a venture capitalist, a return to what he sees as life’s “highest calling.”
“Technological innovation is the source of all progress,” he says in a History Museum video beamed at his audience on Tuesday night. “It’s the highest calling. Democracy. Freedom. Prosperity. It all stems from technological innovation.”
His audience laughed. But Metcalfe is nothing but serious. His aim is to solve the world’s energy problems using the lessons of internet openness. “The world needs cheap and clean energy,” he says. “Too many of the people working on this problem are luddites and greens and Marxists and politicians and lawyers and other people who don’t understand the problem. But scientists and engineers and venture capitalists can solve the problem.
“Just like it took us thirty years to break the back of the communications monopolies to build the internet, we’re going to take the next thirty years to break the back of the energy monopolies and give the world cheap and clean energy.”
The laughter continued — here and there. But there were cheers as well. Metcalfe envisions an “Enernet” — a distributed system that serves up power much like YouTube serves up videos. He’s not quite sure how it will work. But he’s sure it’s not far away. Laugh if you like. But he deserves a cheer or two for Ethernet. Or at least its name. ®