Ethernet...good old Ethernet. It seems as if this type of LAN technology has been around virtually forever. It also seems as if Ethernet will continue to be the driving force behind system networking, especially since this technology continually changes with time.

The entire methodology behind the inherent design and operation of local area networks (LANs) is daunting. There are so many rules, regulations and intricacies that the “science” of LANs is almost an industry itself.

Ethernet is the LAN technology that dictates the speed of information transmittal between the network components. Within the industry, this is referred to as an Ethernet LAN.

An Ethernet system has three main components, all of which are essential for optimal performance. The first is the physical medium that is generally the system’s cabling aspect. The second is the embedded media access controls. The third element, the Ethernet frame or packet, is the key piece that allows the data to be carried over the system.

Ethernet got its start back when the IEEE 802.3 standard was first released. This is also referred to as the networking protocol since Ethernet is much more widely used than other methods, mainly when talking about applications such as Token Ring, FDDI and ATM.

Back when the inherent principles of Ethernet were originally created, thick coaxial cable was the norm. Ethernet speeds were initially set at 10 megabits per second (Mbps).

That was then, this is now. Ethernet has evolved, right along with the entire industry, and implements such cable as broadband coaxial, fiber optic and twisted pair. With the addition of these faster cables to the protocol, the speed at which Ethernet could operate as a backbone and in supply-server connectivity increased as well.

The original standard ensured thick Ethernet was sufficient to handle operations as a network backbone. The cumbersome cable used in bygone days made standards regarding maximum run length extremely important.

Fast forward to today’s Ethernet, the kinds that we all know, and quite frankly love to run (especially in comparison to the thick “stuff” of the past). It seems, as cable got thinner, things moved faster.

The evolution began with what we refer to as “Thin Ethernet.” Thin Ethernet or “ThinNet” was a much cheaper solution, because the cable had less networking capacity and was ideal for small businesses in need of a networked system.

When twisted pair cabling entered the Ethernet standard, change occurred at lightning speed. Category 3 twisted pair cabling seemed to be in just about every building contractors set foot in. This is all due to the fact that, for decades, Category 3 was the standard for voice applications. And, since phones were popular for years before computers, well... you get the idea.

Like most networking projects, cabling is the hardest portion to easily upgrade. If you find Cat 3 running throughout a building, a complete re-cabling will probably be necessary so clients have, at a minimum, Category 5 (or better yet, Category 5 Enhanced cable). Technology slows for no one, especially contractors. Blessed are the few who had the insight to run Cat 5 E cable years ago.

The introduction of Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet changed the landscape and created a new way of optimizing LANs. These more advanced methods of backbone operation and server connectivity significantly changed Ethernet speeds. Fast Ethernet increased to a whopping 100 Mbps, and Gigabit multiplied that by 10, hitting speeds of 1 Gigabit per second. Talk about taking a leap forward.

Gigabit seems to be taking on a life of its own, so much so that an IEEE 802.3z Task Force created a Gigabit Ethernet standard to be widely accepted and implemented. As with other advances within the communications realm, if a standard is not created and thus readily accepted, things can easily go haywire. We all remember thinking, “What the heck is Level 7 cable and where did it come from?”

The future does not stop with Gigabit. In fact, Terabit looms on the horizon, and once it hits the mainstream marketplace in the near future, things will once again be forever changed.

As with all networking components and technologies, the market changes at the speed of light. This is why it is of the utmost importance for contractors to stay abreast of new products and offerings. By choosing to be in the communications industry, you make a conscious decision and commitment to staying on top of things. Continuing education is important, and contractors can keep themselves up-to-date by paying attention to this ever-evolving industry. EC

STONG is the enterprise developer at G. R. Sponaugle & Sons Inc. in Pennsylvania. She can be reached at 717.564.1515 or via e-mail at jennifer.stong@grsponaugle.com.