Ethernet is a type of communication protocol that connects computers within what’s called a “local area network (LAN)” and a “wide area network (WAN).” LAN and WAN connect various devices, such as laptops and printers, within homes, buildings, and even small neighborhoods.

Users closely associate the term “Ethernet” with the physical connection between a computer or a router. That is because your laptop usually has an Ethernet port where you plug in one end of a cable and connect the other to a router. However, as mentioned, the word refers to the communication standard itself.

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ethernet definition

Here’s a detailed explanation of Ethernet’s features.

Origins of the Ethernet

IEEE 802.3, which was defined by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), introduced the standards or policies governing the use of the Ethernet. During its launch in the 1980s, Ethernet technologies employed a single coaxial cable from which all devices in a local area, identified by their media access control (MAC) addresses, are connected to. This early Ethernet model was called “10BASE5,” which users colloquially referred to as “thicknet.”

The issue with this antiquated setup is that when there’s a problem with one computer, the whole network is affected. So-called “collisions” or what we now know as “network congestion,” occur when devices “talk” with each other all at once. As such, communication between devices should take place one after the other.

The arrival of twisted pair cabling and hubs and switches have eliminated this technical issue. Individual connections now allow devices to transport data independently without relying on the main cable. Thus, in the modern setup, problems on a particular port will not impact other users on the network.

Another significant improvement is Ethernet’s reach. Back then, connections were limited to 100 meters from the switch to the device. However, today’s fiber-optic technology has substantially extended the distance between endpoints.

How Ethernet Works

Ethernet lies in the lower layers of the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model. It facilitates the operation of physical and data link layers. The OSI model, which is composed of seven layers, illustrates how various communication protocols work together. 

The OSI’s seven layers are:

  • physical layer 
  • data link layer
  • network layer 
  • transport layer 
  • session layer 
  • presentation layer 
  • application layer

The topmost layer is the application layer, which enables users to download and access data from a browser or a mail client. Users enter their queries through the application, which forwards it to the next layer. The request comes in what’s called a “packet.” The packet contains data about the destination web address and information about the sender. This information includes the sender’s IP address, device version, and browser agent.

The packet is transmitted from the application layer until it reaches the bottom layer (now called an “Ethernet frame”). The bottom or first layer is the one closest to your device. The packet travels back and forth the OSI stack, being packed and unpacked in each layer for checking.