Innovation is vital. It drives progress and makes the world a better place to live in. We even rely on innovation to solve the problems created by innovation itself…
As the core of the world’s economy shifts to the East it becomes even more vital for the West to maintain its culture of innovation to stay in the race – while the manufacturing giants in the East must also innovate to ensure their rise beyond “blue collar” status.
So, as the networking community comes to celebrate 40 years since the invention of Ethernet, it has chosen to focus more on the culture of innovation than on past glories.
The birth of Ethernet – and so of modern networking – can be traced back to Xerox PARC and May 22nd 1973 when Bob Metcalfe drew a diagram and sent a memo outlining the Ethernet concept for the very first time. As Bob explains: “David Boggs and I were the principal inventors of Ethernet, but we had a lot of help”. Also named on the patent were Butler Lampson and Chuck Thacker who contributed a lot. Tat Lam, a contractor at Xerox PARC helped develop the transceiver, then there was David Liddle and the list goes on, according to Metcalfe.
The place was Silicon Valley, the time was the 1970s and innovation was in the air. It’s a great story, but to call it the Golden Age of Innovation misses the key point. Because the global spread of Ethernet has created an even more fertile culture of innovation, as Bob assures us: “We didn’t have Google, we didn’t have the Internet. Today’s innovators can find out in the twinkling of an eye almost all the previous work and people working in their field. They can begin collaborating from afar. So we now have what I call collective intelligence that’s been created through the connectivity of the Internet and that is actually accelerating innovation.”
So Ethernet, an innovation of 40 years ago, is paving the way for an even greater future. How can we make sure this happens? How best to maximise this opportunity?
PARC – nowadays a wholly owned but independent subsidiary of Xerox – the Computer History Museum and the MEF are working together to mark Ethernet’s 40th birthday with three consecutive events based at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.
May 22nd begins with a conference organized by PARC to explore the history of the innovation process and culture that created Ethernet. This will be followed by an evening Gala – including a tour of the Museum meeting face to face with famous Silicon Valley inventors, a charity auction, award ceremony, Gala dinner and opportunities to rub shoulders with the industry’s movers and shakers. The Museum includes a display outlining the rise of Ethernet from a 2.94 Mbps network running on thick co-ax cable to today’s high-speed Ethernet running over fibre, copper or wireless.
Then, on the 23rd, there will be a NetEvents-style day of discussions, hot debates and industry briefings, where the leaders of the Ethernet industry – now a $100 billion a year market – can sit down with the world’s IT press and industry analysts from more than 35 countries across the globe.
Thanks to Carrier Ethernet and the pioneering work of the MEF, we will be broadcasting sessions from both days across the globe as an educational opportunity for tomorrow’s young innovators – while providing massive additional coverage for the events.
How it all began
According to Bob Metcalfe: “The first Ethernet was a one-node Ethernet, which isn’t very interesting. It was a one-node Ethernet, which isn’t very interesting. It was a node that could transmit to itself for testing and de-bugging purposes. Then we had two nodes – which incidentally we called Michelson and Morley who happened to be the two physicists who disproved the existence of the Ether, so we thought that was ironic – then eventually the cable got strung all over the building.”
What was the real innovation, as they saw it then? “In those days our big innovation was putting a computer on every desk – I know that’s hard to believe! We put one on every desk then ran this co-ax down the middle of the corridor and everybody tapped into it from their PCs. So it grew to fill this building.”
The benefits were immediate, and so other departments wanted in on the network. “The labs wanted to be connected so, with an Internet protocol, we built an Internet that spanned the research laboratories of Xerox. It wasn’t until the late seventies that we began leaving Xerox and installing Ethernets elsewhere.”
Bob went on to found 3Com, makers of the first commercial Ethernet cards. Within 20 years Ethernet saw off competition from token-based networking and came to dominate the LAN space, covering every continent with islands of Ethernet connectivity.
But it was not until the last ten years, thanks to the work of the MEF, that Carrier Ethernet was developed to enable those islands of data to be connected via Ethernet, rather than more complex and costly WAN technologies such as Frame Relay and ATM.
Appropriately for this celebration, last year marked a turning point: for the first time Carrier Ethernet sales exceeded that of all other WAN technologies combined. Ethernet has now more or less taken over the world.
As MEF President Nan Chen once predicted: “In future there will be a single language inking business worldwide. It won’t be English. It won’t be Mandarin. It will be Ethernet”.
Keeping the flame alive
It is easy to be nostalgic about those pioneering days in a world still ruled by the telephone and typewriter. Bob reflects: “Even by then in the ’70s Silicon Valley had a tradition of innovation going back decades. Within that tradition it was expected that you would innovate and innovation was supported. We had all that going for us in the ’70s here in Silicon Valley.”
That makes it all the more vital to identify the key elements of that tradition in order to encourage them today and keep the flame of innovation burning. As Bob explains: “It starts with people – people drawn into this epitome of the free enterprise system, a system with great respect for science, education, engineering, entrepreneurship and business”. Ever the pragmatist, Bob adds wryly: “And the weather by the way – have I mentioned the weather?”
Heir to this great tradition is Steve Hoover, the current CEO of PARC. He points out the importance of an open spirit of enquiry to balance the intense commercial pressure to deliver results: “One of the key things is recognising that innovation is going to require failure. So you can’t start something and not believe that it’s possible to fail…. of course it’s not about failing, failing’s not good, but it’s about learning.”
Steve compares this innovative culture to a class of five-year olds: “It’s all the questioning … it’s why? Why? Why?! That leads to really good innovation because people are getting to the fundamental ideas, they’re questioning the status quo, they’re willing to change it and break it. Fail on the way and then pick yourself up, dust yourself off and move on to the next.”
The vital contributions of government and academia
A key element of the 40th birthday celebrations will be discussion around the need to foster and maintain this dynamic spirit of innovation in today’s globally competitive environment. This goes beyond purely business concern, innovation is vital to national pride and prosperity – even to survival. It is, therefore a concern for governments too.
Steve Hoover points out that the business world sometimes forgets the contribution made by past governments: “If you look back at the history of the Internet, Arpanet was government-initiated. The tremendous commercial impact I don’t believe would have occurred without their foresight in investing in those fundamental capabilities.”
“Today at PARC we are working to repeat that model over and over and over again.” Steve is very keen to enrol government support for this work, pointing out the need to recognize that: “The government does identify fundamental research areas to work in and is willing to invest. That partnership – of government investing in core capabilities, in new areas, taking some of the higher risk, plus industry’s ability to capitalise and leverage it – that partnership is really important.”
In the May conferences another key partnership will be welcomed to the debate – the partnership between business and academia. Among Bob Metcalfe’s many roles, he is now Director of Innovation at University of Austin, Texas. This gives him a unique insight into what really motivates today’s innovators: “We’re after freedom and prosperity, and innovation is the engine that drives that virtuous circle.”
Bob recognizes that there are many forms of innovation and many ways to encourage it, but in this role he is particularly focused on the sort fostered by places like PARC and research universities, where the professors don’t just teach but also do real research: “They produce research as a product; they produce students as a product. And then the students are the best vehicles, the embodiment of the innovations, as they take those innovations out into the market.”
This seeding of innovation into the commercial world happens in two ways, he explains: “There’s the taking of those innovations into large existing companies through the open innovation processes there, then there’s my favourite kind – the creation of innovative start ups that take those innovations and package them properly and scale them up into world markets.”
Welcome to the future
Carrier Ethernet technology will be utilsed to transmit these sessions across the globe, not only showing what Ethernet has already achieved but, more importantly, seeding new ideas and inspiration to the next global generation of innovators and entrepreneurs.
As Bob explained, networking and the Internet has given this generation “collective intelligence” and so much more to play with in terms of access to all that has already been achieved, both the successes and the failures of the past and present. So who knows what form Ethernet’s 50th anniversary will take in ten years time? What’s in store for the next generation of innovators and entrepreneurs?
Click here for full details of the events on May 22/23
‘TUNE-IN’ on May 22 and 23 and watch this conference live: Live Broadcast
In the meantime, watch the video about this upcoming event including interviews with Bob Metcalfe and Steve Hoover: