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2.2: 10-Mbps Classic Ethernet

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  • Originally, Ethernet consisted of a long piece of cable (possibly spliced by repeaters). When a station transmitted, the data went everywhere along that cable. Such an arrangement is known as a broadcast bus; all packets were, at least at the physical layer, broadcast onto the shared medium and could be seen, theoretically, by all other nodes. Logically, however, most packets would appear to be transmitted point-to-point, not broadcast. This was because between each station CPU and the cable there was a peripheral device (that is, a card) known as a network interface, which would take care of the details of transmitting and receiving. The network interface would (and still does) decide when a received packet should be forwarded to the host, via a CPU interrupt.


    Whenever two stations transmitted at the same time, the signals would collide, and interfere with one another; both transmissions would fail as a result. Proper handling of collisions was an essential part of the access-mediation strategy for the shared medium. In order to minimize collision loss, each station implemented the following:

    1. Before transmission, wait for the line to become quiet
    2. While transmitting, continually monitor the line for signs that a collision has occurred; if a collision is detected, cease transmitting
    3. If a collision occurs, use a backoff-and-retransmit strategy

    These properties can be summarized with the CSMA/CD acronym: Carrier Sense, Multiple Access, Collision Detect. (The term “carrier sense” was used by Metcalfe and Boggs as a synonym for “signal sense”; there is no literal carrier frequency to be sensed.) It should be emphasized that collisions are a normal event in Ethernet, well-handled by the mechanisms above.

    Classic Ethernet came in version 1 [1980, DEC-Intel-Xerox], version 2 [1982, DIX], and IEEE 802.3. There are some minor electrical differences between these, and one rather substantial packet-format difference, below. In addition to these, the Berkeley Unix trailing-headers packet format was used for a while.

    There were three physical formats for 10 Mbps Ethernet cable: thick coax (10BASE-5), thin coax (10BASE-2), and, last to arrive, twisted pair (10BASE-T). Thick coax was the original; economics drove the successive development of the later two. The cheaper twisted-pair cabling eventually almost entirely displaced coax, at least for host connections.

    The original specification included support for repeaters, which were in effect signal amplifiers although they might attempt to clean up a noisy signal. Repeaters processed each bit individually and did no buffering. In the telecom world, a repeater might be called a digital regenerator. A repeater with more than two ports was commonly called a hub; hubs allowed branching and thus much more complex topologies.

    It was the rise of hubs that enabled star topologies in which each host connects directly to the hub rather than to one long run of coax. This in turn enabled twisted-pair cable: while this supported maximum runs of about 100 meters, versus the 500 meters of thick coax, each run simply had to go from the host to the central hub in the wiring closet. This was much more convenient than having to snake coax all around the building. A hub failure would bring the network down, but hubs proved largely reliable.

    Bridges – later known as switches – came along a short time later. While repeaters act at the bit layer, a switch reads in and forwards an entire packet as a unit, and the destination address is consulted to determine to where the packet is forwarded. Except for possible collision-related performance issues, hubs and switches are interchangeable. Eventually, most wiring-closet hubs were replaced with switches.

    Hubs propagate collisions; switches do not. If the signal representing a collision were to arrive at one port of a hub, it would, like any other signal, be retransmitted out all other ports. If a switch were to detect a collision one one port, no other ports would be involved; only packets received successfully are ever retransmitted out other ports.

    Originally, switches were seen as providing interconnection (“bridging”) between separate physical Ethernets; a switch for such a purpose needed just two ports. Later, a switched Ethernet was seen as one large “virtual” Ethernet, composed of smaller collision domains. Although the term “switch” is now much more common than “bridge”, the latter is still in use, particularly by the IEEE. For some, a switch is a bridge with more than two ports, though that distinction is relatively meaningless as it has been years since two-port bridges were last manufactured. We return to switching below in 2.4 Ethernet Switches.

    In the original thick-coax cabling, connections were made via taps, often literally drilled into the coax central conductor. Thin coax allowed the use of T-connectors to attach hosts. Twisted-pair does not allow mid-cable attachment; it is only used for point-to-point links between hosts, switches and hubs. Mid-cable attachment, however, was always simply a way of avoiding the need for active devices like hubs and switches.

    There is still a role for hubs today when one wants to monitor the Ethernet signal from A to B (eg for intrusion detection analysis), although some switches now also support a form of monitoring.

    All three cable formats could interconnect, although only through repeaters and hubs, and all used the same 10 Mbps transmission speed. While twisted-pair cable is still used by 100 Mbps Ethernet, it generally needs to be a higher-performance version known as Category 5, versus the 10 Mbps Category 3.

    Data in 10 Mbps Ethernets was transmitted using Manchester encoding; see 4.1.3 Manchester. This meant that the electronics had to operate, in effect, at 20 Mbps. Faster Ethernets use different encodings.

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