The LAN turns 30, but will it reach 40?

ARCnet idea came to an engineer while he was eating a meatball sandwich

For Ethernet, its designers considered token passing too slow and fragile, Metcalfe said. "We wanted everything to be passive and simple," he explained. "The token-passing people -- and that included IBM Token Ring -- said they were deterministic, since you knew the token would be passed around in a certain amount of time. But if you counted the processes that had to be undertaken if the token was lost, it was a lie. I know that sounds nasty, but for 10 years I had to put up with that crap from the IBM Token Ring people -- you bet I'm bitter.

"ARCnet was a beautiful thing and the only reason it is not the standard today is that Datapoint decided not to make it an IEEE standard," Metcalfe said. He added that he contacted Datapoint to ask the company to join the IEEE networking standardization group in 1980, and was rebuffed.

"ARCnet did not know that it was a LAN, and that was to their great regret," Wohl agreed. "When local networking became chic, people did not even think of ARCnet as being in that game, although they were. It was a perfect example of where being first did not make you the winner of the game."

"ARCnet was a formidable competitor during the 1980s, since they had a bigger installed base and being nonstandard and slower made them cheaper," Metcalfe recalled. "But our prices kept coming down and our speeds going up, and by the time there were additional sources for ARCnet it was too late. It took into the early 1990s to say that we had defeated Token Ring, and then Ethernet was the last man standing."

Metcalfe recalled that he left Xerox to establish 3Com in 1979 to serve the Ethernet market. He shipped his first Ethernet card for the minicomputer market in 1981, running at 10Mbit/sec. and costing US$5,000.

Today, by contrast, Ethernet interfaces are now so cheap (and low power) that they are showing up in places like smoke detectors and exit signs, noted Abner Germanow, an analyst at IDC. As for speed, the bulk of ports being sold today run at 100Mbit/sec., although the excitement is in 1Gbit/sec. ports, he said. Data centers are using 10Gbit/sec. and 40Gbit/sec. ports, and would like to get 100Gbit/sec. ports, he added.

Talking about terabit

"We are just at the point where you can talk about terabit connections without sounding like a wack job," Germanow noted. As for market share, Ethernet now has nearly 100% of the LAN market, he said, adding that his firm stopped tracking competitive technologies years ago. "I think Ethernet will continue to play the primary role in LAN connectivity at least through my lifetime," he added.

Actually, when the Grim Reaper does come, he may be on a mission to collect the LAN itself, and that may happen not so long from now, said Robert Whiteley, an analyst at Forrester Research. The LAN will become obsolete, he predicted, through a process he called de-perimeterization.

"We are already seeing 20 or 30 of the largest global firms doing it in isolation, and in five or 10 years it may reach critical mass," he said. Firms are finding that they can skip cabling and adopt wireless networks. The next step is to give each machine a direct Internet connection, with appropriate security technology, skipping the LAN, he predicted.

"The two major barriers are performance and reliability," Whiteley noted. "Reliability is easier to overcome since the Internet is getting more reliable, and if the hardware is cheap enough, I can just get two wireless interface cards, with different carriers, and the computer will load-balance across those links. As for performance, accelerator technologies are popular now, and in the few years they will be baked into the infrastructure or the operating systems."

He predicted that the time will eventually come when the average machine will have a wireless gigabit connection directly to the Internet. "The LAN will fade away and everyone will be on the same WAN," he said.

Lamont Wood is a freelance writer in San Antonio.

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