Ethernet’s success in the marketplace is undeniable, and market-driven standardization has been instrumental in its success. It’s a cycle of synergistic innovation and market growth that has been spinning for decades. Ethernet has become entwined with almost every pattern and process of every-day life around the world. Whether a personal computer (PC) has a direct connection to a router or an indirect connection through a “Wi-Fi®” access point, it is highly likely that Ethernet is providing the connection to the Internet.
In one way or another, Ethernet networks are used in, or in support of, data centers, PCs, laptops, tablets, smartphones and now, power infrastructure and smart meters, personal medical devices, the Internet of Things, connected cars and a sprawling array of established and emerging technologies. The Internet, Wi-Fi, Big Data, cloud computing, in-vehicle networking and infotainment, the smart grid, computer gaming, eHealth and numerous other high-tech applications all are supported by Ethernet—oftentimes, imperceptibly so.
As Bob Metcalfe, Ethernet co-inventor and now Professor of Innovation at The University of Texas at Austin, described at the Ethernet Alliance blog in August 2013: “Ethernet began as a very high-speed packet-switching local area network (LAN) for extending the Internet into buildings to reach personal computers and their servers.
However, Ethernet has been evolving and re-invented for some 40 years, making it so much more than just a networking technology or a means for connecting computers together. At its heart, Ethernet is a brand—an innovation brand. Brands make promises, so it’s entirely appropriate to ask what promises Ethernet makes … such as the promise of openness, interoperability, and higher speeds at lower costs. Ethernet’s promises also come in the form of open (de) jure standards; owned rather than open source implementations; and fierce competition but interoperability among competing products. It also means preservation and backward compatibility with the installed base and the rapid evolution of IEEE standards based on market engagement. Long live Ethernet!” 
Market-driven development and refinement of the IEEE 802.3™ “Standard for Ethernet” has been, and continues to be, integral to Ethernet’s ongoing innovation, allowing increasingly complex technologies to be cost-effectively developed and deployed. A full-fledged, standards-driven ecosystem has flourished around Ethernet over its 40 years on the scene. Serving this is a standards development community, its participants being driven by real-world marketplace needs to take the technology to places and capabilities that its creators could not have possibly imagined.
Standardization’s Role in Ethernet’s Success
Ethernet has already penetrated a wide swath of the various ways humanity lives, works and plays. The technology’s applications continue to diversify and grow. In fact, Ethernet is so pervasive and dependable that its presence is increasingly overlooked. Ethernet has become an invisible, enabling infrastructure of every-day life in developed and developing areas of the globe.
Standardization is a key and long-running narrative within Ethernet’s rich history. Seven years after the concept of Ethernet technology was first documented, IEEE started Project 802 (1980) to standardize local area networks (LANs), and 10 years after the idea, on 23rd June 1983, IEEE 802.3 “Standard for Ethernet” (http://standards.ieee.org/findstds/standard/802.3-2012.html) was first approved as an IEEE standard. Over the three decades since, IEEE 802.3 has evolved from its roots of standardizing connectivity devices inside a LAN to deliver increased capacities and connect more devices, users, media and protocols across more types of networks.
Throughout the years, IEEE 802® has blossomed into a family of standards that, along with a host of others from other standards-development organizations (SDOs), are foundational to the Internet. The IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standard, the IEEE 802.11™ wireless local area network (WLAN) standard  (the basis for Wi-Fi), the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) Optical Transport Network (OTN) standards and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards—layered upon by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Internet Protocol (IP) standards—are among those that provide the communications foundation of the Internet we know today. Application-level standards such as browser standards from the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as well as e-business and web service standards from the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards (OASIS) figure prominently in the Internet, as well.
The technological advancements for the Internet resulting from collaboration of those SDOs have been no less than historic. Today, regardless of where you are in the world, connecting a device to the Internet is an easy and familiar process. The consistent interoperability enabled by IEEE 802.3 and other standards comprise a big reason why. Fundamentally, new ways in how societies live, work and play—border-crossing e-commerce, information sharing and community operations, etc.—have emerged with the Internet’s proliferation. Business models that didn’t exist before now exist because of the Internet. A brand-new engine for worldwide economic opportunity has been established. The Internet works because of an array of complementary, market-driven standards, and the result is that billions of people around the world have been positively impacted.
The success story of Internet standardization speaks to the necessity of borderless collaboration in accelerating innovation. Across traditional national and technical borders, the global engineering community—driven by customer desire and market opportunity—has collaborated in creating the standards and technologies on which today’s Internet continues to thrive.
Such an environment demands global coordination building on and/or harmonizing with each other’s efforts wherever possible—if return on industry investment in standards is to be maximized and innovation is to be accelerated. Such SDO collaboration has certainly taken place in Ethernet standards development.
IEEE 802.3 maintains key relationships with the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), ITU, the Optical Internetworking Forum (OIF) and Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA). The symbiotic cooperation among those standards communities has ensured standards innovation in Ethernet keeps moving forward. It is a complex, layered system of standards built upon standards. As just one example of many, ISO/IEC 11801 “Generic cabling for customer premises standard specifies cabling referenced throughout the IEEE 802.3 standard, but this standard, in turn, is built upon the wire and connector standards of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC). And many standards are built on the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standards; one such example is IEEE 1904.1™ “Standard for Service Interoperability in Ethernet Passive Optical Networks (SIEPON)” (http://standards.ieee.org/findstds/standard/1904.1-2013.html).
Market-driven, Globally Open
Collaboration among standards organizations is central to the market-driven model of standards development and adoption that has fueled Internet innovation.
In 2012, five standards organizations—IEEE, the Internet Architecture Board (IAB), IETF, the Internet Society and W3C—worked together to document the market-driven standardization principles that have fueled the Internet’s success and consolidate them in an easily extendible paradigm. The “OpenStand” principles are:
- respectful cooperation among standards organizations, “whereby each respects the autonomy, integrity, processes, and intellectual property rules of the others;”
- adherence to the principles of due process, broad consensus, transparency, balance and openness;
- “collective empowerment,” which encompasses a commitment by standards organizations to strive for “standards that are chosen and defined based on technical merit, as judged by the contributed expertise of each participant; provide global interoperability, scalability, stability, and resiliency; enable global competition; serve as building blocks for further innovation; and contribute to the creation of global communities, benefiting humanity;”
- availability of standards “to all for implementation and deployment;” and
- voluntary adoption of standards, the success of which “is determined by the market.”
In the case of the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet family, it is the IEEE-SA that has provided the globally open forum through which standards innovation thrives. It is the open and transparent development process through which the standards come to exist that is the common, lasting factor in the decades of success that IEEE 802.3 Ethernet has demonstrated.
A proven, formal, rigorous process underpins development of IEEE 802.3 and other IEEE standards.
Consensus, due process, openness, right to appeal and balance are the building blocks on which the IEEE-SA process is built. Balloters on a draft IEEE standard vote to approve, disapprove or abstain; every comment received by the standards-development project’s working group must be considered, and a 75-percent response from the ballot group—with 75 percent of those voting to approve—is required for the standard to be approved.
Participation in the development of an IEEE 802 standard is open to anyone globally, with all stakeholders invited to directly participate in the process. In the case of IEEE 802.3, thousands of individuals from markets around the globe have participated in the creation and refinement of the standards family. Often, those individuals have been affiliated with competitors. Individuals affiliated with both well-established and startup companies alike have participated.
The IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standard has steadily evolved in response to changing market needs. There is the never-ending demand for increased bandwidth, as well as the move from half duplex to switched operation. Along with this, IEEE 802.3 progressed to support the large installed base of telephony-type wiring as well as single mode and multimode fiber, and more recently backplanes, and point-to-multipoint fiber in passive optical networks (PON). There has been market demand for additional functionality; Power over Ethernet (PoE) and energy-efficient Ethernet (EEE) are two prime examples. IEEE 802.3 continues to grow into subscriber access, into data centers and now into automotive and industrial applications. Application areas such as smart grid, supercomputing, mobile-communications infrastructure, healthcare and medical-device communications as well as entertainment are fast-growing areas for IEEE 802.3 Ethernet.
Innovation in the standards family is incessant. For example, three new standards-development projects as well as an IEEE-SA Industry Connections activity—all intended to expand the capabilities and relevance of IEEE 802.3—were announced in January 2014:
- The IEEE P802.3br Interspersing Express Traffic project (http://standards.ieee.org/develop/project/802.3br.html) is addressing the market need in emerging IEEE 802.3 Ethernet application areas such as audio/video, automotive, industrial automation and transportation (aircraft, railway and heavy trucking) to cost-effectively converge low-latency and best-effort traffic streams on the same physical connections.
- PoE continues to be a fast-growing application space for the IEEE 802.3, and two standards-development projects are underway to enhance its capabilities and efficiency. The IEEE P802.3bt DTE Power via MDI over 4-Pair project (http://standards.ieee.org/develop/project/802.3bt.html) is underway to deliver the boosts in PoE power and efficiency that are sought in areas such as pan/tilt/zoom security cameras, Internet Protocol (IP) videophones, kiosks, point-of-sale (POS) terminals, thin clients, multi-radio wireless nodes and access points, laptop computers, radio frequency identification (RFID) readers and building management. The IEEE P802.3bu 1-Pair Power over Data Lines project (http://standards.ieee.org/develop/project/802.3bu.html) meanwhile, is extending PoE to single-pair data interfaces. The availability of power on the single-pair data interface would remove the need for separate power wiring for applications in emerging Ethernet markets such as automotive, transportation and industrial automation.
- Access is one of those application spaces for which Ethernet was not originally intended. It has gradually evolved and is now widely deployed. Ethernet Passive Optical Network (EPON) infrastructure is popular for a number of applications, including residential and commercial subscriber access (for voice, video and data) and mobile backhaul, and equipment vendors and network operators—especially in Asia and North and South America—are interested in exploring the technologies available for the next generation of EPON. Consequently, the IEEE 802.3 Industry Connections NG-EPON Ad Hoc (http://www.ieee802.org/3/ad_hoc/ngepon/index.html) has been launched to explore the market potential and technology options for a next generation of Ethernet Passive Optical Networks operating at data rates beyond 10 Gigabit per second (10Gbps). IEEE-SA Industry Connections activities such as these are valuable to industry because they allow like-minded organizations and individuals to come together quickly, effectively and economically to build consensus at strategic points in a technology’s lifecycle, perhaps even before that technology area is ready for formal standardization.
The IEEE 802.3 Ethernet standards make an ideal case study in the context of OpenStand, as they are constantly evolving and expanding as driven by real-world market needs and are openly developed and deployed/accepted on a global scale.
- IEEE 802.11™-2012 “Standard for Information technology–Telecommunications and information exchange between systems Local and metropolitan area networks–Specific requirements Part 11: Wireless LAN Medium Access Control (MAC) and Physical Layer (PHY) Specifications”
is a distinguished engineer for HP Networking and has worked on the specification and development of Ethernet products since 1989. In this role, Law has held a number of leadership positions as a member of the IEEE 802.3 Ethernet Working Group. He served as the vice-chair of IEEE 802.3 from 1996 to 2008 and in 2008 was elected to chair of IEEE 802.3. Law has been a member of the IEEE-SA Standards Board since 2005 and is also chair of the IEEE-SA Standards Board Patent Committee (PatCom). Law has received several awards, including the IEEE-SA Standards Medallion in 2000, IEEE-SA Standards Board Distinguished Service Award in 2009 and IEEE-SA International Award in 2012. Law holds a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) in Electrical and Electronic Engineering from Strathclyde University in Glasgow, Scotland.