Ethernet standards are now focussing on time-sensitivity, energy efficiency

This year, the Ethernet protocol — the standard way of connecting proximal machines before the world went wireless — turned 40.

Over the years, the Ethernet has adapted itself to every evolving technology, whether it is high speed networks or now, the Internet of Things (IOT).

In an interview with The Hindu, Wael Diab, Vice-chairperson of the Institution of Electronics and Electrical Engineers’s Ethernet Working Group, spoke about how the protocol, which was created to merely connect computer devices using radio-like signals over an antenna cable, has evolved much past its LAN (Local Area Network) days. Excerpts:

Q. Why has the Ethernet been so successful?

A. Two things: convergence and leverage. For instance, in the past, typically, there was broadband access, research government establishments and the enterprise, all of which had different infrastructure; but they converged. That allowed for higher volumes at lower costs and eliminated unnecessary protocol conversions, because if you don’t have to go between Ethernet and something else, then you don’t have to get a new box to manage the network.

We also have architectural convergence — probably the thing the business community understands is that there is a well-understood maturity curve. People know that over a period of the Ethernet, costs will come down and take higher volumes, so they’re confident about what we do.

Is that at the core of why the Ethernet was able to adapt with mind-bogglingly rapid changes in technology?

It’s hard to tell whether the maturity curve came first that made it successful or the other. Say we adapted well first, but the fact that it has been able to adapt itself to all the changing requirements is behind the success. And architecturally, we try to do this in a simple way, without having more than one solution for a particular problem.

The leverage part is important too as it gives a lot of free technologies such as a lot of speed and cost point and media leverage, and energy efficiency. The same leverage operates at the system and subsystem level. It’s the same tech that can be used and re-used, irrespective of what industry it is being used in.

But, how did the IEEE ensure that the standard adapts or evolves?

People talk about new applications. What’s key is the basic requirements such as Quality of Service (QoS) and bandwidth. Now, we’re moving beyond that and looking at meeting new requirements such as like time-sensitive networking and the fact that we've introduced energy-efficient Ethernet.

And today, it is insane to not address operational costs. For example, Google did a study that showed that in 2 to 5 years, the cost of powering equipment will dwarf the cost of buying equipment. Research at Stanford has shown that data centre energy usage by 2010 is 1.5 per cent of total energy consumption on the planet. So, naturally there’s a lot of interest in energy-efficient Ethernet.

Is energy efficiency an important focus for this standards group?

Fifty years ago, when you went to purchase a car you didn’t ask about energy efficiency. Today, it’s the topmost priority. Now, finally, networks have come to par. And it’s only natural. Today, in a world where people are more connected and we have the Internet of Things, networking is no more about a facility where computers are connected.

As we keep upping the speed factor, are there material challenges that need to be solved?

There are. First of all, as you’re trying to attain higher speeds you’re pushing the limits of what you’re trying to do. Typically, people think about wireless challenges, but indeed we have greater challenges in the wired world and there’s lot of work to be done.

What are the biggest challenges the IOT faces?

The biggest challenge for IOT is that we have to agree on what to do – there are different areas such as medical, machine-to-machine, energy. Basically, you're exchanging information in so many ways, and it's a tremendous amount of information involved. As you go from merely collecting information and transmitting it, to action and automation, you need to be able to make these systems talk to each other. So how do I make them talk, how do I automate them and how do I not compromise my privacy: these are key challenges.

Is there a need to evolve standards for the IOT, given the general variation in the industry?

Generally, you do standards when there's tonnes of variation and this is introducing costs and prohibiting innovation. In the case of IOT, absolutely. Today, there are many, many different solutions for everything. What we need to do is innovate on top of standards.

Take mobile phones, for instance. If every time we innovate with a gadget we ignore wi-fi standards and go ahead and reinvent the wheel, then we don’t have the resources to do what matters or what consumers wants.

So, yes – I am a bit biased – and I’ll say there's a need for standards around IOT. And given it's a complex topic, different standards organisations will have to sit together and do this.