Ethernet: Distributed Packet Switching for Local Computer
NetworksReprinted from Communications of the ACM,
Vol. 19, No. 5, July 1976 pp. 395 - 404 Copyright © 1976, Association for
Computing Machinery Inc.
Robert M. Metcalfe and David R. Boggs
Xerox Palo Alto
This is a digitized copy derived from an ACM copyrighted work. It is not
guaranteed to be an accurate copy of the author's original work.
Table of ContentsAbstract
Ethernet is a branching broadcast
communication system for carrying digital data packets among locally distributed
computing stations. The packet transport mechanism provided by Ethernet has been
used to build systems which can be viewed as either local computer networks or
loosely coupled multiprocessors. An Ethernet's shared communication facility,
its Ether, is a passive broadcast medium with no central control. Coordination
of access to the Ether for packet broadcasts is distributed among the contending
transmitting stations using controlled statistical arbitration. Switching of
packets to their destinations on the Ether is distributed among the receiving
stations using packet address recognition. Design principles and implementation
are described, based on experience with an operating Ethernet of 100 nodes along
a kilometer of coaxial cable. A model for estimating performance under heavy
loads and a packet protocol for error controlled communication are included for
Key Words and Phrases: computer networks, packet
switching, multiprocessing, distributed control, distributed computing,
broadcast communication, statistical arbitration
CR Categories: 3.81,
One can characterize distributed
computing as a spectrum of activities varying in their degree of
decentralization, with one extreme being remote computer networking and the
other extreme being multiprocessing. Remote computer networking is the loose
interconnection of previously isolated, widely separated, and rather large
computing systems. Multiprocessing is the construction of previously monolithic
and serial computing systems from increasingly numerous and smaller pieces
computing in parallel. Near the middle of this spectrum is local networking, the
interconnection of computers to gain the resource sharing of computer networking
and the parallelism of multiprocessing.
The separation between computers
and the associated bit rate of their communication can be used to divide the
distributed computing spectrum into broad activities. The product of separation
and bit rate, now about I gigabit-meter per second (1 Gbmps), is an indication
of the limit of current communication technology and can be expected to increase
||> 10 km
||< .1 Mbps|
||> 10 Mbps|
1.1 Remote Computer NetworkingComputer networking evolved from
telecommunications terminal-computer communication, where the object was to
connect remote terminals to a central computing facility. As the need for
computer-computer interconnection grew, computers themselves were used to
provide communication [2, 4,
29]. Communication using computers as packet switches [15-21,
26] and communications among computers for resource sharing [10,
32] were both advanced by the development of the Arpa Computer Network.
The Aloha Network at the University of Hawaii was originally developed
to apply packet radio techniques for communication between a central computer
and its terminals scattered among the Hawaiian Islands [1, 2]
. Many of the terminals are now minicomputers communicating among themselves
using the Aloha Network's Menehune as a packet switch. The Menehune and an
Arpanet Imp are now connected, providing terminals on the Aloha Network access
to computing resources on the U.S. mainland.
Just as computer networks
have grown across continents and oceans to interconnect major computing
facilities around the world, they are now growing down corridors and between
buildings to interconnect minicomputers in offices and laboratories [3, 12,
13, 14, 35].
1.2 MultiprocessingMultiprocessing first took the form of connecting an
I/O controller to a large central computer; IBM's Asp is a classic example .
Next, multiple central processors were connected to a common memory to provide
more power for compute-bound applications 
For certain of these applications, more exotic multiprocessor architectures such
as Illiac IV were introduced .
More recently minicomputers have been connected in multiprocessor
configurations for economy, reliability, and increased system modularity [24,
36]. The trend has been toward decentralization for reliability; loosely
coupled multiprocessor systems depend less on shared central memory and more on
thin wires for interprocess communication with increased component
26]. With the continued thinning of interprocessor communication for
reliability and the development of distributable applications, multiprocessing
is gradually approaching a local form of distributed computing.
1.3 Local Computer NetworkingEthernet shares many objectives with other
local networks such as Mitre's Mitrix, Bell Telephone Laboratory's Spider, and
U.C. Irvine's Distributed Computing System (DCS) [12, 13,
14, 35]. Prototypes of all four local networking schemes operate at bit
rates between one and three megabits per second. Mitrix and Spider have a
central minicomputer for switching and bandwidth allocation, while DCS and
Ethernet use distributed control. Spider and DCS use a ring communication path,
Mitrix uses off-the-shelf CATV technology to implement two one-way busses, and
our experimental Ethernet uses a branching two-way passive bus. Differences
among these systems are due to differences among their intended applications,
differences among the cost constraints under which trade-offs were made, and
differences of opinion among researchers. Before going into a detailed
description of Ethernet, we offer the following overview (see Figure
Ethernet is a system for local
communication among computing stations. Our experimental Ethernet uses tapped
coaxial cables to carry variable length digital data packets among, for example,
personal minicomputers, printing facilities, large file storage devices,
magnetic tape backup stations, larger central computers, and longer-haul
- Figure 1. A two-segment Ethernet
The shared communication facility, a branching
Ether, is passive. A station's Ethernet interface connects bit-serially through
an interface cable to a transceiver which in turn taps into the passing Ether. A
packet is broadcast onto the Ether, is heard by all stations, and is copied from
the Ether by destinations which select it according to the packet's leading
address bits. This is broadcast packet switching and should be distinguished
from store-and-forward packet switching, in which routing is performed by
intermediate process processing elements. To handle the demands of growth, an
Ethernet can be extended using packet repeaters for signal regeneration, packet
filters for traffic localization, and packet gateways for internetwork address
Control is completely distributed among stations, with packet
transmissions coordinated through statistical arbitration. Transmissions
initiated by a station defer to any which may already be in progress. Once
started, if interference with other packets is detected, a transmission is
aborted and rescheduled by its source station. After a certain period of
interference-free transmission, a packet is heard by all stations and will run
to completion without interference. Ethernet controllers in colliding stations
each generate random retransmission intervals to avoid repeated collisions. The
mean of a packet's retransmission intervals is adjusted as a function of
collision history to keep Ether utilization near the optimum with changing
Even when transmitted without source-detected
interference, a packet may still not reach its destination without error; thus,
packets are delivered only with high probability Stations requiring a
residual error rate lower than that provided by the bare Ethernet packet
transport mechanism must follow mutually agreed upon packet protocols.
Our object is to design a
communication system which can grow smoothly to accommodate several buildings
full of personal computers and the facilities needed for their support.
Like the computing stations to be connected, the communication system
must be inexpensive. We choose to distribute control of the communications
facility among the communicating computers to eliminate the reliability problems
of an active central controller, to avoid creating a bottleneck in a system rich
in parallelism, and to reduce the fixed costs which make small systems
Ethernet design started with the basic idea of packet collision and
retransmission developed in the Aloha Network .
We expected that, like the Aloha Network, Ethernets would carry bursty traffic
so that conventional synchronous time-division multiplexing (STDM) would be
inefficient [1, 2, 21,
26]. We saw promise in the Aloha approach to distributed control of radio
channel multiplexing and hoped that it could be applied effectively with media
suited to local computer communication. With several innovations of our own, the
promise is realized.
Ethernet is named for the historical
luminiferous ether through which electromagnetic radiations were once
alleged to propagate. Like an Aloha radio transmitter, an Ethernet transmitter
broadcasts completely-addressed transmitter- synchronous bit sequences called
packets onto the Ether and hopes that they are heard by the intended receivers.
The Ether is a logically passive medium for the propagation of digit signals Is
and can be constructed using any number of media including coaxial cables,
twisted pairs, and optical fibers.
3.1 TopologyWe cannot afford the redundant connections and dynamic
routing of store-and-forward packet switching to assure reliable communication,
so we choose to achieve reliability through simplicity. We choose to make the
shared communication facility passive so that the failure of an active element
will tend to affect the communications of only a single station. The layout and
changing needs of office and laboratory buildings leads us to pick a network
topology with the potential for convenient incremental extension and
reconfiguration with minimal service disruption.
The topology of the
Ethernet is that of an unrooted tree. It is a tree so that the Ether
can branch at the entrance to a building's corridor, yet avoid multipath
interference. There must be only one path through the Ether between any source
and destination; if more than one path were to exist, a transmission would
interfere with itself, repeatedly arriving at its intended destination having
traveled by paths of different length. The Ether is unrooted because it
can be extended from any of its points in any direction: Any station wishing to
join an Ethernet taps into the Ether at the nearest convenient point.
Looking at the relationship of interconnection and control, we see that
Ethernet is the dual of a star network. Rather than distributed
interconnection through many separate links and central control in a
switching node, as in a star network, the Ethernet has central
interconnection through the-Ether and distributed control among its
Unlike an Aloha Network, which is a star network with an
outgoing broadcast channel and an incoming multi-access channel, an Ethernet
supports many-to-many communication with a single broadcast multiaccess channel.
3.2 ControlSharing of the Ether is controlled in such a way that it is
not only possible but probable that two or more stations will attempt to
transmit a packet at roughly the same time. Packets which overlap in time on the
Ether are said to collide; they interfere so as to be unrecognizable by a
receiver. A station recovers from a detected collision by abandoning the attempt
and retransmitting the packet after some dynamically chosen random time period.
Arbitration of conflicting transmission demands is both distributed and
When the Ether is largely unused, a station transmits its
packets at will, the packets are received without error, and all is well. As
more stations begin to transmit, the rate of packet interference increases.
Ethernet controllers in each station are built to adjust the mean retransmission
interval in proportion to the frequency of collisions; sharing of the Ether
among competing station-station transmissions is thereby kept near the optimum
A degree of cooperation among the stations is required to share
the Ether equitably. In demanding applications certain stations might usefully
take transmission priority through some systematic violation of equity rules. A
station could usurp the Ether by not adjusting its retransmission interval with
increasing traffic or by sending very large packets. Both practices are now
prohibited by low-level software in each station.
3.3 AddressingEach packet has a source and destination, both of which
are identified in the packet's header. A packet placed on the Ether eventually
propagates to all stations. Any station can copy a packet from the Ether into
its local memory, but normally only an active destination station matching its
address in the packet's header will do so as the packet passes. By convention, a
zero destination address is a wildcard and matches all addresses; a packet with
a destination of zero is called a broadcast packet.
3.4 ReliabilityAn Ethernet is probabilistic. Packets may be lost due to
interference with other packets, impulse noise on the Ether, an inactive
receiver at a packet's intended destination, or purposeful discard. Protocols
used to communicate through an Ethernet must assume that packets will be
received correctly at intended destinations only with high probability.
An Ethernet gives its best efforts to transmit packets successfully, but
it is the responsibility of processes in the source and destination stations to
take the precautions necessary to assure reliable communication of the quality
they themselves desire [18,
21]. Recognizing the costliness and dangers of promising "error-free"
communication, we refrain from guaranteeing reliable delivery of any single
packet to get both economy of transmission and high reliability averaged over
many packets .
Removing the responsibility for reliable communication from the packet transport
mechanism allows us to tailor reliability to the application and to place error
recovery where it will do the most good. This policy becomes more important as
Ethernets are interconnected in a hierarchy of networks through which packets
must travel farther and suffer greater risks.
3.5 MechanismsA station connects to the Ether with a tap and a
transceiver. A tap is a device for physically connecting to the Ether while
disturbing its transmission characteristics as little as possible. The design of
the transceiver must be an exercise in paranoia. Precautions must be taken to
insure that likely failures in the transceiver or station do not result in
pollution of the Ether. In particular, removing power from the transceiver
should cause it to disconnect from the Ether.
Five mechanisms are
provided in our experimental Ethernet for reducing the probability and cost of
losing a packet. These are (1) carrier detection, (2) interference detection,
(3) packet error detection, (4) truncated packet filtering, and (5) collision
3.5.1 Carrier detection.As a packet's bits are placed on the Ether by a
station, they are phase encoded (like bits on a magnetic tape), which guarantees
that there is at least one transition on the Ether during each bit time. The
passing of a packet on the Ether can therefore be detected by listening for its
transitions. To use a radio analogy, we speak of the presence of carrier as a
packet passes a transceiver. Because a station can sense the car carrier of a
passing packet, it can delay sending one of its own until the detected packet
passes safely. The Aloha Network does not have carrier detection and
consequently suffers a substantially higher collision rate. Without carrier
detection, efficient use of the Ether would decrease with increasing packet
length. In Section
6 below, we show that with carrier detection, Ether efficiency increases
with increasing packet length.
With carrier detection we are able to
implement deference: no station will start transmitting while hearing
carrier. With deference comes acquisition: once a packet transmission
has been in progress for an Ether end-to-end propagation time, all stations are
hearing carrier and are deferring; the Ether has been acquired and the
transmission will complete without an interfering collision.
carrier detection, collisions should occur only when two or more stations find
the Ether silent and begin transmitting simultaneously: within an Ether
end-to-end propagation time. This will almost always happen immediately after a
packet transmission during which two or more stations were deferring. Because
stations do not now randomize after deferring, when the transmission terminates,
the waiting stations pile on together, collide, randomize, and retransmit.
3.5.2 Interference detection.Each transceiver has an interference
detector. Interference is indicated when the transceiver notices a difference
between the value of the bit it is receiving from the Ether and the value of the
bit it is attempting to transmit.
Interference detection has three
advantages. First, a station detecting a collision knows that its packet has
been damaged. The packet can be scheduled for retransmission immediately,
avoiding a long acknowledgment timeout. Second, interference periods on the
Ether are limited to a maximum of one round trip time. Colliding packets in the
Aloha Network run to completion, but the truncated packets resulting from
Ethernet collisions waste only a small fraction of a packet time on the Ether
Third, the frequency of detected interference is used to estimate Ether traffic
for adjusting retransmission intervals and optimizing channel efficiency.
3.5.3 Packet error detection.As a packet is placed on the Ether, a
checksum is computed and appended. As the packet is read from the Ether, the
checksum is recomputed. Packets which do not carry a consistent checksum are
discarded. In this way transmission errors, impulse noise errors, and errors due
to undetected interference are caught at a packet's destination.
3.5.4 Truncated packet filtering.Interference detection and deference
cause most collisions to result in truncated packets of only a few bits;
colliding stations detect interference and abort transmission within an Ether
round trip time. To reduce the processing load that the rejection of such
obviously damaged packets would place on listening station software, truncated
packets are filtered out in hardware.
3.5.5 Collision consensus enforcement.When a station determines that
its transmission is experiencing interference, it momentarily jams the Ether to
insure that all other participants in the collision will detect interference
and, because of deference, will be forced to abort. Without this collision
consensus enforcement mechanism, it is possible that the transmitting station
which would otherwise be the last to detect a collision might not do so as the
other interfering transmissions successively abort and stop interfering.
Although the packet may look good to that last transmitter, different path
lengths between the colliding transmitters and the intended receiver will cause
the packet to arrive damaged.
Our choices of I kilometer, 3
megabits per second, and 256 stations for the parameters of an experimental
Ethernet were based on characteristics of the locally distributed computer
communication environment and our assessments of what would be marginally
achievable; they were certainly not hard restrictions essential to the Ethernet
We expect that a reasonable maximum network size would be on
the order of I kilometer of cable. We used this working number to choose among
Ethers of varying signal attenuation and to design transceivers with appropriate
power and sensitivity.
The dominant station on our experimental Ethernet
is a minicomputer for which 3 megabits per second is a convenient data transfer
rate. By keeping the peak rate well below that of the computer's path to main
memory, we reduce the need for expensive special-purpose packet buffering in our
Ethernet interfaces. By keeping the peak rate as high as is convenient, we
provide for larger numbers of stations and more ambitious multiprocessing
To expedite low-level packet handling among
256 stations, we allocate the first 8-bit byte of the packet to be the
destination address field and the second byte to be the source address field
2). 256 is a number small enough to allow each station to get an adequate
share of the available bandwidth and approaches the limit of what we can achieve
with current techniques for tapping cables. 256 is only a convenient number for
the lowest level of protocol; higher levels can accommodate extended address
spaces with additional fields inside the packet and software to interpret them.
Our experimental Ethernet implementation has four major parts: the
Ether, transceivers, interfaces, and controllers (see Figure
4.1 EtherWe chose to implement our experimental Ether using low-loss
coaxial cable with off-the-shelf CATV taps and connectors. It is possible to mix
Ethers on a single Ethernet; we use a smaller-diameter coax for convenient
connection within station clusters and a larger-diameter coax for low-loss runs
between clusters. The cost of coaxial cable Ether is insignificant relative to
the cost of the distributed computing systems supported by Ethernet.
4.2 Transceivers.Our experimental transceivers can drive a kilometer of
coaxial cable Ether tapped by 256 stations transmitting at 3 megabits per
second. The transceivers can endure (i.e. work after) sustained direct shorting,
improper termination of the Ether, and simultaneous drive by all 256 stations;
they can tolerate (i.e. work during) ground differentials and everyday
electrical noise, from typewriters or electric drills, encountered when stations
are separated by as much as a kilometer.
An Ethernet transceiver
attaches directly to the Ether which passes by in the ceiling or under the
floor. It is powered and controlled through five twisted pairs in an interface
cable carrying transmit data, receive data, interference detect, and power
supply voltages. When unpowered, the transceiver disconnects itself electrically
from the Ether. Here is where our fight for reliability is won or lost; a broken
transceiver can, but should not, bring down an entire Ethernet. A watchdog timer
circuit in each transceiver attempts to prevent pollution of the Ether by
shutting down the output stage if it acts suspiciously. For transceiver
simplicity we use the Ether's base frequency band, but an Ethernet could be
built to use any suitably sized band of a frequency division multiplexed Ether.
Even though our experimental transceivers are very simple and can
tolerate only limited signal attenuation, they have proven quite adequate and
reliable. A more sophisticated transceiver design might permit passive branching
of the Ether and wider station separation.
4.3 InterfaceAn Ethernet interface serializes and deserializes the
parallel data used by its station. There are a number of different stations on
our Ethernet; an interface must be built for each kind.
is equipped with the hardware necessary to compute a 16-bit cyclic redundancy
checksum (CRC) on serial data as it is transmitted and received This checksum
protects only against errors in the Ether and specifically not against errors in
the parallel portions of the interface hardware or station. Higher-level
software checksums are recommended for applications in which a higher degree of
reliability is required.
A transmitting interface uses a packet buffer
address and word count to serialize and phase encode a variable number of 16-bit
words which are taken from the station's memory and passed to the transceiver,
preceded by a start bit (called SYNC in Figure
2) and followed by the CRC. A receiving interface uses the appearance of
carrier to detect the start of a packet and uses the SYNC bit to acquire bit
phase. As long as carrier stays on, the interface decodes and deserializes the
'incoming bit stream depositing 16-bit words in a packet buffer in the station's
main memory. When carrier goes away, the interface checks that an integral
number of 1 6-bit words has been received and that the CRC is correct. The last
word received is assumed to be the CRC and is not copied into the packet buffer.
These interfaces ordinarily include hardware for accepting only those pa
ckets with appropriate addresses in their headers. Hardware address filtering
helps a station avoid burdensome software packet processing when the Ether is
very busy carrying traffic intended for other stations.
An Ethernet controller is the
station-specific low level firmware or software for getting packets onto and out
of the Ether. When a source-detected collision occurs, it is the source
controller's responsibility to generate a new random retransmission interval
based on the updated collision count. We have studied a number of algorithms for
controlling retransmission rates in stations to maintain Ether efficiency [20,
22]. The most practical of these algorithms estimate traffic load using
recent collision history.
Retransmission intervals are multiples of a
slot, the maximum time between starting a transmission and detecting a
collision, one end-to-end round trip delay An Ethernet controller begins
transmission of each new packet with a mean retransmission interval of one slot.
Each time a transmission attempt ends in collision, the controller delays for an
interval of random length with a mean twice that of the previous interval,
defers to any passing packet, and then attempts retransmission. This heuristic
approximates an algorithm we have called Binary Exponential Backoff (see Figure
- Fig. 3. Collision control algorithm
When the network is unloaded
and collisions are rare, the mean seldom departs from one and retransmission are
prompt. As the traffic load increases, more collisions are experienced, a
backlog of packets builds up in the stations, retransmission intervals increase,
and retransmission traffic backs off to sustain channel efficiency.
5.1 Signal CoverOne can expand an Ethernet just so far by adding
transceivers and Ether. At some point, the transceivers and Ether will be unable
to carry the required signals. The signal cover can be extended with a simple
unbuffered packet repeater. In our experimental Ethernet, where because of
transceiver simplicity the Ether cannot be branched passively, a simple repeater
may join any number of Ether segments to enrich the topology while extending the
We operate an experimental two-segment packet repeater,
but hope to avoid relying on them. In branching the Ether and extending its
signal cover, there is a trade. off between using sophisticated transceivers and
using repeaters. With increased power and sensitivity, transceivers become more
expensive and less reliable. The introduction of repeaters into an Ethernet
makes the centrally interconnecting Ether active. The failure of a transceiver
will sever the communications of its owner; the failure of a repeater partitions
the Ether severing many communications.
5.2 Traffic CoverOne can expand an Ethernet just so far by adding Ether
and packet repeaters. At some point the Ether will be so busy that additional
stations will just divide more finely the already inadequate bandwidth. The
traffic cover can be extended with an unbuffered traffic-filtering repeater or
packet filter, which passes packets from one Ether segment to another only if
the destination station is located on the new segment. A packet filter also
extends the signal cover.
5.3 Address CoverOne can expand an Ethernet just so far by adding
Ether, repeaters, and traffic filters. At some point there will be too many
stations to be addressed with the Ethernet's 8-bit addresses. The address cover
can be extended with packet gateways and the software addressing conventions
they implement .
Addresses can be expanded in two directions: down into the station by adding
fields to identify destination ports or processes within a station, and up into
the internetwork by adding fields to identify destination stations on remote
networks. A gateway also extends the traffic and signal covers.
can be only one repeater or packet filter connecting two Ether segments; a
packet repeated onto a segment by multiple repeaters would interfere with
itself. However, there is no limit to the number of gateways connecting two
segments; a gateway only repeats packets addressed to itself as an intermediary.
Failure of the single repeater connecting two segments partitions the network;
failure of a gateway need not partition the net it there are paths through other
gateways between the segments.
We present here a simple set of
formulas with which to characterize the performance expected of an Ethernet when
it is heavily loaded. More elaborate analyses and several detailed simulations
have been done, but the following simple model has proven very useful in
understanding the Ethernet's distributed contention scheme, even when it is
loaded beyond expectations [1, 20,
21,22, 23, 27].
We develop a simple model of the performance of a
loaded Ethernet by examining alternating Ether time periods. The first, called a
transmission interval, is that during which the Ether has been acquired for a
successful packet transmission. The second, called a contention
interval, is that composed of the retransmission slots of Section
4.4, during which stations attempt to acquire control of the Ether. Because
the model's Ethernets are loaded and because stations defer to passing packets
before starting transmission, the slots are synchronized by the tail of the
preceding acquisition interval. A slot will be empty when no station chooses to
attempt transmission in it and it will contain a collision if more than one
station attempts to transmit. When a slot contains only one attempted
transmission, then £he Ether has been acquired for the duration of a packet, the
contention interval ends, and a transmission interval begins.
P be the number of bits in an Ethernet packet. Let C be the
peak capacity in bits per second, carried on the Ether. Let T be the time in
seconds of a slot, the number of seconds it takes to detect a collision after
starting a transmission. Let us assume that there are Q stations
continuously queued to transmit a packet; either the acquiring station has a new
packet immediately after a successful acquisition or another station comes
ready. Note that Q also happens to give the total offered load on the
network which for this analysis is always l or greater. We assume that a queued
station attempts to transmit in the current slot with probability 1/Q,
or delays with probability 1 - (1/Q)); this is known to be the optimum
statistical decision rule, approximated in Ethernet stations by means of our
load-estimating retransmission control algorithms [20,
6.1 Acquisition ProbabilityWe now compute A, the probability that
exactly one station attempts a transmission in a slot and therefore acquires the
Ether. A is Q*(l/Q)*((1 -
(l/Q))**(Q- 1)); there are Q ways In which one
station can choose to transmit (with probability ( 1/ Q) ) while
Q-l stations choose to wait (with probability l- (I/Q)). Simplifying,
A = (l -(1/Q))**(Q-l) .
6.2 Waiting TimeWe now compute W, the mean number of slots of
waiting in a contention interval before a successful acquisition of the Ether by
a station's transmission. The probability of waiting no time at all is just A,
the probability that one and only one station chooses to transmit in the first
slot following a transmission. The probability of waiting l slot is
A*(l-A); the probability of waiting i slots is
A*((1-A)**i). The mean of this geometric distribution
W = (l -A)/A.
6.3 EfficiencyWe now compute E, that fraction of time the
Ether is carrying good packets, the efficiency. The Ether's time is divided
between transmission intervals and contention intervals. A packet transmission
takes P/C seconds. The mean time to acquisition is
W*T. Therefore, by our simple model, E =
(P/C)/((P/C) + (W*T)).
Table 1 presents representative performance figures (i.e. E) for our
experimental Ethernet with the indicated packet sizes and number of continuously
queued stations. The efficiency figures given do not account for inevitable
reductions due to headers and control packets nor for losses due to imprecise
control of the retransmission parameter l/Q; the former is
straightforwardly protocol-dependent and the latter requires analysis beyond the
scope of this paper. Again, we feel that all of the Ethernets in the table are
overloaded; normally loaded Ethernets will usually have a Q much less
than l and exhibit behavior not covered by this model. For our calculations we
use a C of 3 megabits per second and a T of 16 microseconds.
The slot duration T must be long enough to allow a collision to be
detected or at least twice the Ether's round trip time. We limit in software the
maximum length of our packets to be near 4000 bits to keep the latency of
network access down and to permit efficient use of station packet buffer
storage. For packets whose size is above 4000 bits, the efficiency of our
experimental Ethernet stays well above 95 percent. For packets with a size
approximating that of a slot, Ethernet efficiency approaches 1/e, the
asymptotic efficiency of a slotted Aloha network .
There is more to the construction of a
viable packet communication system than simply providing the mechanisms for
packet transport. Methods for error correction, flow control, process naming,
security, and accounting must also be provided through higher-level protocols
implemented on top of the Ether control protocol described in Sections
3 and 4
above. [7, 10,
12,21, 28, 34]. Ether control includes packet framing, error detection,
addressing and multi-access control; like other line control procedures,
Ethernet is used to support numerous network and multiprocessor architectures [30,
Here is a brief description of one simple error-controlling
packet protocol. The EFTP (Ethernet File Transfer Protocol) is of interest both
because it is relatively easy to understand and implement correctly and because
it has dutifully carried many valuable files during the development of more
general and efficient protocols.
7.1. General TerminologyIn discussing packet protocols, we use the
following generally useful terminology. A packet is said to have a
source and a destination. A flow of data is said to have a
sender and a receiver, recognizing that to support a flow of
data some packets (typically acknowledgments) will be sourced at the receiver
and destined for the sender. A connection is said to have a listener
and an initiator and a service is said to have a server and a
user. It is very useful to treat these as orthogonal descriptors of the
participants in a communication. Of course, a server is usually a listener and
the source of data-bearing packets is usually the sender.
7.2 EFTPThe first 16 bits of all Ethernet packets contain its
interface-interpretable destination and source station addresses, a byte each,
in that order (see Figure
2). By software convention, the second 16 bits of all Ethernet packets
contain the packet type. Different protocols use disjoint sets of packet types.
The EFTP uses 5 packet types: data, ack, abort, end, and endreply. Following the
16-bit type word of an EFTP packet are 16 bits of sequence number, 16 bits of
length, optionally some 16-bit data words, and finally a 16-bit software
checksum word (see Figure
4). The Ethernet's hardware checksum is present only on the Ether and is not
counted at this level of protocol.
- Fig. 4. EFTP packet layout
It should be obvious that little care has been taken to cram
certain fields into just the right number of bits. The emphasis here is on
simplicity and ease of programming. Despite this disclaimer, we do feel that it
is more advisable to err on the side of spacious fields; try as you may, one
field or another will always turn out to be too small.
checksum word is used to lower the probability of an undetected error. It serves
not only as a backup for the experimental Ethernet's serial hardware 16-bit
cyclic redundancy checksum (in Figure
2), but also for protection against failures in parallel data paths within
stations which are not checked by the CRC. The checksum used by the EFTP is a
l's complement add and cycle over the entire packet, including header and
content data. The checksum can be ignored at the user's peril at either end; the
sender may put all l's (an impossible value) into the checksum word to indicate
to the receiver that no checksum was computed.
7.2.1 Data transfer.The 16-bit words of a file are carried from sending
station to receiving station in data packets consecutively numbered from 0. Each
data packet is retransmitted periodically by the sender until an ack packet with
a matching sequen ce number is returned from the receiver. The receiver ignores
all damaged packets, packets from a station other than the sender, and packets
whose sequence number does not match either the expected one or the one
preceding. When a packet has the expected sequence number, the packet is acked,
its data is accepted as part of the file, and the sequence number is
incremented. When a packet arrives with a sequence number one less than that
expected, it is acknowledged and discarded; the presumption is that its ack was
lost and needs retransmission .
7.2.2 End.When all the data has been transmitted, an end packet is sent
with the next consecutive sequence number and than the sender waits for a
matching endreply. Having accepted an end packet in sequence, the data receiver
responds with a matching endreply and then dallys for some reasonably long
period of time (10 seconds). Upon getting the endreply, the sending station
transmits an echoing endreply and is free to go off with the assurance that the
file has been transferred successfully. The dallying receiver then gets the
echoed endreply and it too goes off assured.
Table 1. Ethernet Efficiency.
||P = 4096
||P = 1024
||P = 512
||P = 48|
The comparatively complex end-dally
sequence is intended to make it practically certain that the sender and receiver
of a file will agree on whether the file has been transmitted correctly. If the
end packet is lost, the data sender simply retransmits it as it would any packet
with an overdue acknowledgement. If the endreply from the data receiver is lost,
the data sender will time out in the same way and retransmit the end packet
which will in turn be acknowledged by the dallying receiver. If the echoed
endreply is lost, the dallying receiver will be inconvenienced having to wait
for it, but when it has timed out, the receiver can nevertheless be assured of
successful transfer of the file because the end packet has been received.
At any time during all of this, either side is free to decide
communication has failed and just give up; it is considered polite to send an
abort packet to end the communication promptly in the event of, say, a user-
initiated abort or a file system error.
7.2.3 EFTP shortcomings.The EFTP has been very useful, but its
shortcomings are many. First, the protocol provides only for file transfer from
station to station in a single network and specifically not from process to
process within stations either on the same network or through a gateway. Second,
process rendezvous is degene~ate in that there are no mechanisms for finding
processes by name or for convenient handling of multiple users by a single
server. Third, there is no real flow control. If data arrives at a receiver
unable to accept it into its buffers, the data can simply be thrown away with
complete assurance that it will be retransmitted eventually. There is no way for
a receiver to quench the flow of such wasted transmissions or to expedite
retransmission. Fourth, data is transmitted in integral numbers of 16-bit words
belonging to unnamed files and thus the EFTP is either terribly restrictive or
demands some nested file transfer formats internal to its data words. And fifth,
functional generality is lost because the receiver is also the listener and
Our experience with an operating
Ethernet leads us to conclude that our emphasis on distributed control was well
placed By keeping the shared components of the communication system to a minimum
and passive, we have achieved a very high level of reliability. Installation and
maintenance of our experimental Ethernet has been more than satisfactory. The
flexibility of station interconnection provided by broadcast packet switching
has encouraged the development of numerous computer networking and
Acknowledgments. Our colleagues
at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center, especially Tat C. Lam, Butler W.
Lampson, John F. Shoch, and Charles P. Thacker, have contributed in many ways to
the evolution of Ethernet ideas and to the construction of the experimental
system without which such ideas would be just so much speculation.
Received May 1975; revised December 1975
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