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Introduction to Ethernet

Ethernet Technology

Traditional Ethernet supports data transfers at the rate of 10 megabits per second (Mbps). As the performance needs of networks increased over time, the industry created additional Ethernet specifications for Fast Ethernet and Gigabit Ethernet. Fast Ethernet extends traditional Ethernet performance up to 100 Mbps and Gigabit Ethernet up to 1000 Mbps speeds. Although products aren’t yet available to the average consumer, 10 Gigabit Ethernet (10,000 Mbps) also exist and are used on some business networks and on Internet2.

Ethernet cables likewise are manufactured to any of several standard specifications. The most popular Ethernet cable in current use, Category 5 or CAT5 cable, supports both traditional and Fast Ethernet. The Category 5e (CAT5e) and CAT6 cables supports Gigabit Ethernet.

To connect Ethernet cables to a computer (or other network device), a person plugs a cable directly into the device’s Ethernet port.

Some devices without Ethernet supports can also support Ethernet connections via dongles such as USB-to-Ethernet adapters. Ethernet cables utilize connectors that look much like the RJ-45 connector used with traditional telephones.

Types of Ethernet

Often referred to as Thicknet, 10Base5 was the first incarnation of Ethernet technology. The industry used Thicknet in the 1980s until 10Base2 Thinnet appeared. Compared to Thicknet, Thinnet offered the advantage of thinner (5 millimeters vs 10 millimeters) and more flexible cabling, making it easier to wire office buildings for Ethernet.

The most common form of traditional Ethernet, however, was 10Base-T. 10Base-T offers better electrical properties than Thicknet or Thinnet, because 10Base-T cables utilize unshielded twisted pair (UTP) wiring rather than coaxial. 10Base-T also proved more cost effective than alternatives like fiber optic cabling.

Numerous other lesser-known Ethernet standards exist, including 10Base-FL, 10Base-FB, and 10Base-FP for fiber optic networks and 10Broad36 for broadband (cable television) cabling.

More About Fast Ethernet

In the mid-1990s, Fast Ethernet technology matured and met its design goals of a) increasing the performance of traditional Ethernet while b) avoiding the need to completely re-cable existing Ethernet networks. Fast Ethernet comes in two major varieties:

  • 100Base-T (using unshielded twisted pair cable)
  • 100Base-FX (using fiber optic cable)

By far the most popular of these is 100Base-T, a standard that includes 100Base-TX (Category 5 UTP), 100Base-T2 (Category 3 or better UTP), and 100Base-T4 (100Base-T2 cabling modified to include two additional wire pairs).

More About Ethernet Devices

As mentioned earlier, Ethernet cables are limited in their reach, and those distances (as short as 100 meters) are insufficient to cover medium-sized and large network installations. A repeater in Ethernet networking is a device that allows multiple cables to be joined and greater distances to be spanned. A bridge device can join an Ethernet to another network of a different type, such as a wireless network. One popular type of repeater device is an Ethernet hub. Other devices sometimes confused with hubs are switches and routers.

Ethernet network adapters also exist in multiple forms. Newer personal computers and game consoles feature a built-in Ethernet adapter. USB-to-Ethernet adapters and wireless Ethernet adapters can also be configured to work with many newer devices

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