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Understanding Ethernet - How Does Ethernet Work?

written by: Ada Stoy•edited by: Lamar Stonecypher•updated: 3/30/2010

Ethernet is a complex topic and even pros with decades of experience can hardly say they know everything about how Ethernet works. However, if you want to learn Ethernet basics, they are not that difficult and they are the topic of this article.

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    What Is Ethernet

    Before we delve into the details of how Ethernet works, we need to clarify the term Ethernet itself. Ethernet is commonly mistaken to be a synonym for Internet. It is true that the technologies that power the Internet power Ethernet as well but there is a major distinction between the two– while the Internet is global in its nature, Ethernet is a local area network, which generally covers only a single building or premises that are close to each other. Modern technologies made it possible for Ethernet networks to span tens of kilometers but this doesn't change the local nature of Ethernet.

    Ethernet allows many computers to connect to one another into a network. This is done with the help of special Ethernet hardware and Ethernet protocols, which are explained in a bit more detail later in the article.

    Ethernet became popular in recent years because it is one of the most common types of broadband connection to the Internet. However, Ethernet is almost forty years old and the history of Ethernet has seen many ups and downs since the time Bob Metcalfe of Xerox invented Ethernet in 1973.

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    Ethernet Hardware

    In order to make Ethernet work, one of the components you can't do without is Ethernet hardware. There are three pieces of Ethernet hardware: Ethernet cards (or adapters), Ethernet cables, and Ethernet hubs and routers.

    Ethernet cards are plugged into the computer and the Ethernet cable connects them to the rest of the network. Thanks to the Ethernet adapter, a computer can send and receive data packets from the other segments of the network and/or the Internet.

    Ethernet cables are the medium that carries data packets to and from the computers, hubs, and routers in the Ethernet. There are many Ethernet cable types, such as copper and Fiber Channel, to name a few.

    Ethernet hubs and Ethernet routers are like dispatchers in an Ethernet network because they direct data to the correct recipient. Hubs and routers can be connected to other devices, not only to computers and depending on the way they are connected, there are different Ethernet topologies.

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    Ethernet Protocols

    In addition to Ethernet hardware, another component that is required in order for Ethernet to work is a set of rules that define the communication within the Ethernet and with external networks. This set of rules is called Ethernet protocols, and there are tens of them used for communication within the Ethernet. In order two devices on a network to be able to communicate successfully, it is mandatory that both devices use the same protocol.

    I am not going to discuss the various Ethernet protocols because there are so many of them. The only protocol I will mention is Carrier-Sense Multiple Access/Collision Detection (CSMA/CD) protocol – this is the protocol, which ensures that there are no collisions on the network and it is one of the most important Ethernet protocols.

    Ethernet is a vast topic and in a short article like this it is not possible to be very detailed about how Ethernet works. However, I hope that for a newbie, this article about Ethernet basics was useful and that it shed some light on how Ethernet works.