Ethernet is a family of frame-based computer networking technologies for local area networks (LANs). The name comes from the physical concept of the ether. It defines a number of wiring and signaling standards for the Physical Layer of the OSI networking model, through means of network access at the Media Access Control (MAC) /Data Link Layer, and a common addressing format.

Ethernet is standardized as IEEE 802.3. The combination of the twisted pair versions of Ethernet for connecting end systems to the network, along with the fiber optic versions for site backbones, is the most widespread wired LAN technology. It has been in use from around 1980 to the present, largely replacing competing LAN standards such as token ring, FDDI, and ARCNET.

Ethernet was originally developed at Xerox PARC in 1973?1975. In 1975, Xerox filed a patent application listing Robert Metcalfe, David Boggs, Chuck Thacker and Butler Lampson as inventors (U.S. Patent 4,063,220: Multipoint data communication system (with collision detection)). In 1976, after the system was deployed at PARC, Metcalfe and Boggs published a seminal paper.

The experimental Ethernet described in that paper ran at 3 Mbit/s, and had eight-bit destination and source address fields, so the original Ethernet addresses were not the MAC addresses they are today. By software convention, the 16 bits after the destination and source address fields were a packet type field, but, as the paper says, "different protocols use disjoint sets of packet types", so those were packet types within a given protocol, rather than the packet type in current Ethernet which specifies the protocol being used.

Metcalfe left Xerox in 1979 to promote the use of personal computers and local area networks (LANs), forming 3Com. He convinced DEC, Intel, and Xerox to work together to promote Ethernet as a standard, the so-called "DIX" standard, for "Digital/Intel/Xerox"; it specified the 10 megabits/second Ethernet, with 48-bit destination and source addresses and a global 16-bit type field. The first standard draft was first published on September 30, 1980 within IEEE. It competed with two largely proprietary systems, Token Ring and Token Bus. To get over delays of the finalization of the Ethernet CSMA/CD standard due to the difficult decision processes in the "open" IEEE and due to the competitive Token Ring proposal strongly supported by IBM, support of CSMA/CD in other standardization bodies, i.e. ECMA, IEC and ISO was instrumental for its success. Proprietary systems soon found themselves buried under a tidal wave of Ethernet products. In the process, 3Com became a major company. 3COM built the first 10 Mbit/s Ethernet adapter (1981), followed quickly by Digital Equipment's Unibus to Ethernet adapter.

Twisted-pair Ethernet systems have been developed since the mid-80s, beginning with StarLAN, but becoming widely known with 10BASE-T. These systems replaced the coaxial cable on which early Ethernets were deployed with a system of hubs linked with unshielded twisted pair (UTP), ultimately replacing the CSMA/CD scheme in favor of a switched full duplex system offering higher performance.
Notwithstanding its technical merits, timely standardization was instrumental to the success of Ethernet. It required well-coordinated and partly competitive activities in several standardization bodies such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), the European Computer Manufacturers Association (ECMA), the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) and finally the International Organization for

Standardization (ISO).
In February 1980, IEEE started a project IEEE 802 for the standardization of Local Area Networks (LAN).
The "DIX-group" with Gary Robinson (DEC), Phil Arst (Intel) and Bob Printis (Xerox) submitted the so-called "Blue Book" CSMA/CD specification as candidate for the LAN specification. Since IEEE membership is open to all professionals including students, the group received countless comments on this brand-new technology.

In addition to CSMA/CD, Token Ring supported by IBM and Token Bus selected and henceforward supported by General Motors were also considered as candidates for a LAN standard. Due to the goal of IEEE 802 to forward only one standard and due to the strong company support for all three designs the necessary agreement on a LAN standard was significantly delayed.
In the Ethernet camp, it put at risk the market introduction of Xerox Star computing system and 3Com's Ethernet LAN products. With such business implications in mind, David Liddle (GM Xerox Office Systems) and Bob Metcalfe (3Com) strongly supported a proposal of Fritz Röscheisen (Siemens Private Networks) for an alliance in the emerging office communication market, including Siemens' support for the international standardization of Ethernet (April 10, 1981). Ingrid Fromm, Siemens representative to IEEE 802 quickly achieved broader support for Ethernet beyond IEEE by the establishment of a competing Task Group "Local Networks" within the European standards body ECMA TC24. As early as March 1982 ECMA TC24 with its corporate members reached agreement on a standard for CSMA/CD based on the IEEE 802 draft. The speedy action taken by ECMA decisively contributed to the conciliation of opinions within IEEE and approval of IEEE 802.3 CSMA/CD by the end of 1982.
Approval of Ethernet on international level was achieved by a similar, cross-partisan action with Fromm as liaison officer between the International Electrotechnical Commission IEC TC83 and ISO TC97SC6, the International Standard ISO/IEEE 802/3 was approved in 1984.

A 1990s network interface card. This is a combination card that supports both coaxial-based using a 10BASE2 (BNC connector, left) and twisted pair-based 10BASE-T, using an RJ45 (8P8C modular connector, right).Ethernet was originally based on the idea of computers communicating over a shared coaxial cable acting as a broWNOast transmission medium. The methods used show some similarities to radio systems, although there are fundamental differences, such as the fact that it is much easier to detect collisions in a cable broWNOast system than a radio broWNOast. The common cable providing the communication channel was likened to the ether and it was from this reference that the name "Ethernet" was derived.

From this early and comparatively simple concept, Ethernet evolved into the complex networking technology that today underlies most LANs. The coaxial cable was replaced with point-to-point links connected by Ethernet hubs and/or switches to reduce installation costs, increase reliability, and enable point-to-point management and troubleshooting. StarLAN was the first step in the evolution of Ethernet from a coaxial cable bus to a hub-managed, twisted-pair network. The advent of twisted-pair wiring dramatically lowered installation costs relative to competing technologies, including the older Ethernet technologies.
Above the physical layer, Ethernet stations communicate by sending each other data packets, blocks of data that are individually sent and delivered. As with other IEEE 802 LANs, each Ethernet station is given a single 48-bit MAC address, which is used to specify both the destination and the source of each data packet. Network interface cards (NICs) or chips normally do not accept packets addressed to other Ethernet stations. Adapters generally come programmed with a globally unique address, but this can be overridden, either to avoid an address change when an adapter is replaced, or to use locally administered addresses.
Despite the significant changes in Ethernet from a thick coaxial cable bus running at 10 Mbit/s to point-to-point links running at 1 Gbit/s and beyond, all generations of Ethernet (excluding early experimental versions) share the same frame formats (and hence the same interface for higher layers), and can be readily interconnected.

Due to the ubiquity of Ethernet, the ever-decreasing cost of the hardware needed to support it, and the reduced panel space needed by twisted pair Ethernet, most manufacturers now build the functionality of an Ethernet card directly into PC motherboards, eliminating the need for installation of a separate network card.

Ethernet originally used a shared coaxial cable (the shared medium) winding around a building or campus to every attached machine. A scheme known as carrier sense multiple access with collision detection (CSMA/CD) governed the way the computers shared the channel. This scheme was simpler than the competing token ring or token bus technologies. When a computer wanted to send some information, it used the following algorithm:

Computers were connected to an Attachment Unit Interface (AUI) transceiver, which was in turn connected to the cable (later with thin Ethernet the transceiver was integrated into the network adapter). While a simple passive wire was highly reliable for small Ethernets, it was not reliable for large extended networks, where damage to the wire in a single place, or a single bad connector, could make the whole Ethernet segment unusable. Multipoint systems are also prone to very strange failure modes when an electrical discontinuity reflects the signal in such a manner that some nodes would work properly while others work slowly because of excessive retries or not at all (see standing wave for an explanation of why); these could be much more painful to diagnose than a complete failure of the segment. Debugging such failures often involved several people crawling around wiggling connectors while others watched the displays of computers running a ping command and shouted out reports as performance changed.

Since all communications happen on the same wire, any information sent by one computer is received by all, even if that information is intended for just one destination. The network interface card interrupts the CPU only when applicable packets are received: the card ignores information not addressed to it unless it is put into "promiscuous mode". This "one speaks, all listen" property is a security weakness of shared-medium Ethernet, since a node on an Ethernet network can eavesdrop on all traffic on the wire if it so chooses. Use of a single cable also means that the bandwidth is shared, so that network traffic can slow to a crawl when, for example, the network and nodes restart after a power failure.

For signal degradation and timing reasons, coaxial Ethernet segments had a restricted size which depended on the medium used. For example, 10BASE5 coax cables had a maximum length of 500 meters (1,640 ft). Also, as was the case with most other high-speed buses, Ethernet segments had to be terminated with a resistor at each end. For coaxial-cable-based Ethernet, each end of the cable had a 50 ohm (?) resistor attached. Typically this resistor was built into a male BNC or N connector and attached to the last device on the bus, or, if vampire taps were in use, to the end of the cable just past the last device. If termination was not done, or if there was a break in the cable, the AC signal on the bus was reflected, rather than dissipated, when it reached the end. This reflected signal was indistinguishable from a collision, and so no communication would be able to take place.

A greater length could be obtained by an Ethernet repeater, which took the signal from one Ethernet cable and repeated it onto another cable. If a collision was detected, the repeater transmitted a jam signal onto all ports to ensure collision detection. Repeaters could be used to connect segments such that there were up to five Ethernet segments between any two hosts, three of which could have attached devices. Repeaters could detect an improperly terminated link from the continuous collisions and stop forwarding data from it. Hence they alleviated the problem of cable breakages: when an Ethernet coax segment broke, while all devices on that segment were unable to communicate, repeaters allowed the other segments to continue working - although depending on which segment was broken and the layout of the network the partitioning that resulted may have made other segments unable to reach important servers and thus effectively useless.

People recognized the advantages of cabling in a star topology, primarily that only faults at the star point will result in a badly partitioned network, and network vendors started creating repeaters having multiple ports, thus reducing the number of repeaters required at the star point. Multiport Ethernet repeaters became known as "Ethernet hubs". Network vendors such as DEC and SynOptics sold hubs that connected many 10BASE2 thin coaxial segments. There were also "multi-port transceivers" or "fan-outs". These could be connected to each other and/or a coax backbone. A well-known early example was DEC's DELNI. These devices allowed multiple hosts with AUI connections to share a single transceiver. They also allowed creation of a small standalone Ethernet segment without using a coaxial cable.

A twisted pair Cat-3 or Cat-5 cable is used to connect 10BASE-T EthernetEthernet on unshielded twisted-pair cables (UTP), beginning with StarLAN and continuing with 10BASE-T, was designed for point-to-point links only and all termination was built into the device. This changed hubs from a specialist device used at the center of large networks to a device that every twisted pair-based network with more than two machines had to use. The tree structure that resulted from this made Ethernet networks more reliable by preventing faults with (but not deliberate misbehavior of) one peer or its associated cable from affecting other devices on the network, although a failure of a hub or an inter-hub link could still affect lots of users. Also, since twisted pair Ethernet is point-to-point and terminated inside the hardware, the total empty panel space required around a port is much reduced, making it easier to design hubs with lots of ports and to integrate Ethernet onto computer motherboards.

Despite the physical star topology, hubbed Ethernet networks still use half-duplex and CSMA/CD, with only minimal activity by the hub, primarily the Collision Enforcement signal, in dealing with packet collisions. Every packet is sent to every port on the hub, so bandwidth and security problems aren't addressed. The total throughput of the hub is limited to that of a single link and all links must operate at the same speed.
Collisions reduce throughput by their very nature. In the worst case, when there are lots of hosts with long cables that attempt to transmit many short frames, excessive collisions can reduce throughput dramatically. However, a Xerox report in 1980 summarized the results of having 20 fast nodes attempting to transmit packets of various sizes as quickly as possible on the same Ethernet segment. The results showed that, even for the smallest Ethernet frames (64B), 90% throughput on the LAN was the norm. This is in comparison with token passing LANs (token ring, token bus), all of which suffer throughput degradation as each new node comes into the LAN, due to token waits.

This report was controversial, as modeling showed that collision-based networks became unstable under loads as low as 40% of nominal capacity. Many early researchers failed to understand the subtleties of the CSMA/CD protocol and how important it was to get the details right, and were really modeling somewhat different networks (usually not as good as real Ethernet).

While repeaters could isolate some aspects of Ethernet segments, such as cable breakages, they still forwarded all traffic to all Ethernet devices. This created practical limits on how many machines could communicate on an Ethernet network. Also as the entire network was one collision domain and all hosts had to be able to detect collisions anywhere on the network, and the number of repeaters between the farthest nodes was limited. Finally segments joined by repeaters had to all operate at the same speed, making phased-in upgrades impossible.

To alleviate these problems, bridging was created to communicate at the data link layer while isolating the physical layer. With bridging, only well-formed Ethernet packets are forwarded from one Ethernet segment to another; collisions and packet errors are isolated. Bridges learn where devices are, by watching MAC addresses, and do not forward packets across segments when they know the destination address is not located in that direction.

Prior to discovery of network devices on the different segments, Ethernet bridges (and switches) work somewhat like Ethernet hubs, passing all traffic between segments. However, as the bridge discovers the addresses associated with each port, it only forwards network traffic to the necessary segments, improving overall performance. BroWNOast traffic is still forwarded to all network segments. Bridges also overcame the limits on total segments between two hosts and allowed the mixing of speeds, both of which became very important with the introduction of Fast Ethernet.

Early bridges examined each packet one by one using software on a CPU, and some of them were significantly slower than hubs (multi-port repeaters) at forwarding traffic, especially when handling many ports at the same time. This was in part due to the fact that the entire Ethernet packet would be read into a buffer, the destination address compared with an internal table of known MAC addresses and a decision made as to whether to drop the packet or forward it to another or all segments.

In 1989 the networking company Kalpana introduced their EtherSwitch, the first Ethernet switch. This worked somewhat differently from an Ethernet bridge, in that only the header of the incoming packet would be examined before it was either dropped or forwarded to another segment. This greatly reduced the forwarding latency and the processing load on the network device. One drawback of this cut-through switching method was that packets that had been corrupted at a point beyond the header could still be propagated through the network, so a jabbering station could continue to disrupt the entire network. The remedy for this was to make available store-and-forward switching, where the packet would be read into a buffer on the switch in its entirety, verified against its checksum and then forwarded. This was essentially a return to the original approach of bridging, but with the advantage of more powerful, application-specific processors being used. Hence the bridging is then done in hardware, allowing packets to be forwarded at full wire speed. It is important to remember that the term switch was invented by device manufacturers and does not appear in the 802.3 standard.

Since packets are typically only delivered to the port they are intended for, traffic on a switched Ethernet is slightly less public than on shared-medium Ethernet. Despite this, switched Ethernet should still be regarded as an insecure network technology, because it is easy to subvert switched Ethernet systems by means such as ARP spoofing and MAC flooding. The bandwidth advantages, the slightly better isolation of devices from each other, the ability to easily mix different speeds of devices and the elimination of the chaining limits inherent in non-switched Ethernet have made switched Ethernet the dominant network technology.

When a twisted pair or fiber link segment is used and neither end is connected to a hub, full-duplex Ethernet becomes possible over that segment. In full duplex mode both devices can transmit and receive to/from each other at the same time, and there is no collision domain. This doubles the aggregate bandwidth of the link and is sometimes advertised as double the link speed (e.g. 200 Mbit/s) to account for this. However, this is misleading as performance will only double if traffic patterns are symmetrical (which in reality they rarely are). The elimination of the collision domain also means that all the link's bandwidth can be used and that segment length is not limited by the need for correct collision detection (this is most significant with some of the fiber variants of Ethernet).

In the early days of Fast Ethernet, Ethernet switches were relatively expensive devices. Hubs suffered from the problem that if there were any 10BASE-T devices connected then the whole network needed to run at 10 Mbit/s. Therefore a compromise between a hub and a switch was developed, known as a dual speed hub. These devices consisted of an internal two-port switch, dividing the 10BASE-T (10 Mbit/s) and 100BASE-T (100 Mbit/s) segments. The device would typically consist of more than two physical ports. When a network device becomes active on any of the physical ports, the device attaches it to either the 10BASE-T segment or the 100BASE-T segment, as appropriate. This prevented the need for an all-or-nothing migration from 10BASE-T to 100BASE-T networks. These devices are hubs because the traffic between devices connected at the same speed is not switched.

The autonegotiation standard contained a mechanism for detecting the speed but not the duplex setting of an Ethernet peer that did not use autonegotiation. An autonegotiating device defaults to half duplex, when the remote does not negotiate, as the remote peer is assumed to be a hub (which always has autonegotiation disabled and supports only half duplex mode). If the remote is operating in half duplex mode this works. But if remote is in full duplex mode, this generates a duplex mismatch. When two interfaces are connected and set to different "duplex" modes, the effect of the duplex mismatch is a network that works, but is much slower than its nominal speed, and generates more collisions. The primary rule for avoiding this is to never set one end of a connection to a forced full duplex setting and the other end to autonegotiation.

Interoperability problems lead some network administrators to manually fix the mode of operation of interfaces on network devices. What would happen is that some device would fail to autonegotiate and therefore had to be set into one setting or another. This often led to duplex setting mismatches. In particular, when two interfaces are connected to each other with one set to autonegotiation and one set to full duplex mode, a duplex mismatch results because the autonegotiation process fails and half duplex is assumed. The interface in full duplex mode then transmits at the same time as receiving, and the interface in half duplex mode then gives up on transmitting a frame. The interface in half duplex mode is not ready to receive a frame, so it signals a collision, and transmissions are halted, for amounts of time based on backoff (random wait times) algorithms. When both packets start trying to transmit again, they interfere again and the backoff strategy may result in a longer and longer wait time before attempting to transmit again; eventually a transmission succeeds but this then causes the flood and collisions to resume.

Because of the wait times, the effect of a duplex mismatch is a network that is not completely 'broken' but is incredibly slow. This bad behaviour can be tolerated on low traffic link, but is really dramatic under heavy bandwidth transfer attempt, and can lead to a complete stop of the traffic.

While auto negotiation is not required for 10/100 Mbit/s, it is recommended as default behaviour by IEEE 802.3u. However, 1000baseT devices require autonegotiation to be active to elect the clock master (source of timing). Enabing autonegotiation on every node eases transition from 10/100Mbit/s to 1000baseT switch and LAN. There are no disadvantages of keeping autonegotiation active on all devices, because complete physical link behaviours are controlled through autonegotiation (speed, duplex, clock master and flow control). For example, to force a single speed link you can keep negotiation on, but negotiate only one speed. So the old method with autonegotiation off is deprecated everywhere, on switch and LAN cards.