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Everything You Need to Know About Ethernet

Unveiling the Power of Ethernet in the World of IT Networks

In the pre-dominance of Wi-Fi, Ethernet emerged as the primary avenue for interconnecting devices within IT Networks. Whether integrated into a local area network (LAN) or deployed across a wide area network (WAN), the deployment of Ethernet cables seamlessly facilitated traffic flow among devices. One of the distinct advantages of Ethernet, particularly within IT Networks, is its capability to empower machines in recognizing intended data and efficiently transmitting information to other connected devices. The enduring significance of this technology is rooted in its unparalleled attributes – speed, reliability, and security – characteristics that surpass the radio wave transmission method utilized by Wi-Fi. As we navigate the landscape of IT Networks, the legacy of Ethernet continues to play a pivotal role in enhancing connectivity.

Ethernet cable

Exploring the Origins: The Genesis of Ethernet in 1973

Originating in 1973 under the ingenuity of engineers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), including luminaries Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs, Ethernet ushered in a new era of connectivity. This groundbreaking technology enabled individuals to interconnect multiple computers within a local area network (LAN), establishing a foundation for digital collaboration. Ethernet introduced a meticulously crafted set of rules, facilitating the swift exchange of data between designated machines. The name “Ethernet” itself draws inspiration from the concept of luminiferous ether, symbolizing the unseen yet pervasive medium through which data seamlessly traverses, connecting devices and shaping the landscape of modern connectivity.

In a significant simplification of Ethernet’s early history, Xerox released its hold on the Ethernet trademark, leading to the formalization of the 802.3 standard (commonly referred to as Ethernet) by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) in 1983. Despite the existence of alternative technologies, Ethernet quickly rose to prominence as the prevailing standard due to its open nature, allowing networking equipment to be accessible from various manufacturers. Notably, Ethernet’s ease of upgradability played a pivotal role, with each version ensuring seamless backward compatibility.

Ethernet cable

The initial Ethernet release supported speeds of up to 10 Mbps. In 1995, 100 Mbps Fast Ethernet emerged, followed by Gigabit Ethernet in 1999. By 2002, 10-Gigabit Ethernet became feasible. Power over Ethernet (PoE), enabling a single cable for both power and networking, debuted in 2003. Ethernet capabilities continued to advance, reaching 40 Gbps in 2010 and 100 Gbps later that year. While research persists, 40 Gbps currently stands as the top speed for home use, surpassing the needs of most users. The evolution of Ethernet showcases a constant drive for higher speeds in response to evolving networking demands.

Wired and Wireless Connectivity: Navigating the Realms of Ethernet and Wi-Fi

Even if your experience has been solely with Wi-Fi, the presence of Ethernet plugs and cables is likely familiar. The cable linking your modem to the Wi-Fi router or primary mesh unit typically boasts an Ethernet cable with an RJ45 connector. Ethernet presents three key advantages over Wi-Fi: superior speed, increased stability, and enhanced security. However, this comes at the trade-off of necessitating physical cables between devices, and the connected devices must feature Ethernet ports. The process of setting up a network with wired connections can be intricate and incur additional costs.

In the end, the speed you attain is consistently governed by the lowest-rated component—whether it be the cable, port, or switch. Let’s delve deeper into the intricacies of each aspect.

There are seven categories of Ethernet cable in use today, offering various maximum bandwidth and data rates.

  • Cat 5: Up to 350 MHz and 100 Mbps
  • Cat 5e (enhanced): Up to 350 MHz and 1 Gbps
  • Cat 6: Up to 550 MHz and 1 Gbps
  • Cat 6a (augmented): Up to 550 MHz and 10 Gbps
  • Cat 7: Up to 600 MHz and 10 Gbps
  • Cat 7a: Up to 1 GHz and 40 Gbps
  • Cat 8: Up to 2 GHz and 25 or 40 Gbps

At the fundamental level, Ethernet cables consist of pairs of wires twisted together and encased in plastic (known as UTP, or Unshielded Twisted Pair). However, some cables incorporate metallic or foil shielding (STP or FTP, standing for Shielded Twisted Pair or Foiled Twisted Pair). While shielding serves to protect against electromagnetic interference, it also contributes to making the cables thicker and less flexible. When purchasing an Ethernet cable, the manufacturer typically outlines its capabilities, with basic specifications often printed on the plastic casing.

While Ethernet cables are generally robust, there’s always a potential risk of damage, particularly with frequent plugging and unplugging. If you route cables throughout your living space, exercise caution with tight bends and steer clear of high-traffic areas where they might be subject to bumps or trampling. Despite the allure of thin or flat Ethernet cables, it’s essential to note that they often possess less shielding and are consequently less durable.

If an Ethernet cable sustains damage, it may not completely cease functioning. Instead, connected devices might recognize it as a lower category cable, thereby constraining its speed. This revelation caught me off guard when it happened to me. A seemingly robust Cat 7 cable, rated at 10 Gbps and functioning flawlessly for months, had incurred damage unnoticed. As a result, the router I was testing restricted my 1 Gbps connection to a mere 100 Mbps.

Additionally, there exists a limitation on the length of an Ethernet cable before the signal strength diminishes, but this is typically not a concern when setting up a home network. Understanding these nuances becomes crucial, especially when dealing with the potential impact of damage on cable performance and the subsequent speed limitations that may ensue.

Given the challenges associated with running cables, particularly when concealing them within walls, ceilings, or floors, it’s advisable to opt for future-proofing by selecting a Cat 7 or Cat 8 cable. The price differential is marginal, and these cables offer the added benefit of backward compatibility. Personally, I rely on a 10-foot Amazon Basics Cat 7 Ethernet Cable ($11), which seamlessly supports my Gigabit internet connection. Notably, both flat cables I experimented with eventually developed faults, emphasizing the reliability and effectiveness of the chosen Cat 7 cable.

The Role and Significance of Ethernet Ports

Numerous routers and mesh systems in the contemporary landscape come equipped with a finite number of Ethernet ports. Similar to cables, these ports possess diverse ratings but are generally more straightforward. Gigabit ports are prevalent, with some routers featuring 2.5 Gbps ports, and a select few supporting 10 Gbps. The maximum data rate is typically indicated on the port for routers, although for other devices, checking the specifications may be necessary.

Ethernet Switches

When you find yourself in need of additional ports or seeking a solution to route Ethernet cables throughout your home, an Ethernet switch becomes a valuable asset. Available in various sizes, these switches allow you to extend a single Ethernet cable from your router and connect multiple cables to different rooms or devices. In my setup, I currently employ the Netgear Five Port Gigabit Network Switch ($33). However, if your requirements demand more ports, options such as the unmanaged eight-port model from TP-Link ($25), which WIRED reviews editor Julian Chokkattu utilizes, are readily available.

Ethernet switches are typically categorized as either managed or unmanaged. Opting for a managed switch is advisable if you enjoy customization and wish to configure and monitor settings, prioritize channels and traffic, and potentially access additional security features. On the other hand, unmanaged switches are straightforward plug-and-play devices. While they lack the advanced configuration options of managed switches, they are generally more cost-effective and well-suited for the needs of most homes.

Using Ethernet in the Home

The decision to run Ethernet cables throughout your home presents a trade-off between the speed, stability, and security advantages it offers and the challenges associated with the construction of your house and your willingness to drill holes. While Wi-Fi is a more convenient option, it consistently delivers lower speeds compared to the maximum supported by your internet service provider. Opting for Ethernet cables brings you significantly closer to the potential of achieving those maximum speeds, making it a compelling choice for those prioritizing performance in their home network.

Running cables to every room may be too disruptive for many individuals, but for those with a mesh system supporting wired backhaul, it’s worth considering the installation of an Ethernet cable from the main router to the nodes or satellites. This setup ensures optimal performance for the entire system. Without a wired connection, the mesh system relies on wireless bands to transmit data, limiting the available bandwidth for devices and potentially leading to slower Wi-Fi speeds for devices connected to a node.

Even when utilizing wireless backhaul, if there’s an available Ethernet port on a node, it’s frequently beneficial to run an Ethernet cable from it to devices in the room. Devices such as smart TVs, game consoles, and computers typically feature Ethernet ports, and opting for a wired connection consistently provides superior speed and stability compared to relying on Wi-Fi.

For those in rental spaces or individuals hesitant to drill holes for cable installation, there are a couple of alternative solutions. One approach is to employ a lengthy Ethernet cable along with adhesive cable clips, allowing you to route the wire throughout your space without the need for drilling. This method, as demonstrated by WIRED reviews editor Julian Chokkattu in his rental, provides a practical workaround. Here are a few additional options:

  • Powerline adapters: These devices are plugged into power outlets to transmit an internet signal through your electrical wiring. One end is connected to your router using an Ethernet cable, while the other end is connected to your device or switch using another Ethernet cable. While powerline adapters can effectively address connectivity issues in certain areas, their performance may vary based on the quality of your electrical wiring.
  • MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance): If your home is equipped with coaxial cables, typically used for transmitting video signals to TVs, you can repurpose them to carry an internet signal. In the early days of Ethernet development, it actually ran over coaxial cables. Similar to Powerline adapters, you’ll require an adapter at each end to facilitate the transition between Ethernet and coaxial connections.

What About Wireless Connectivity?

For the majority of users, Wi-Fi remains the preferred solution due to its effortless device connectivity. With the advent of Wi-Fi 6, Wi-Fi 6E, and the imminent arrival of Wi-Fi 7, achieving exceptionally high-speed connections has become feasible, providing ample bandwidth for common activities such as video streaming and online gaming. If Wi-Fi meets your needs effectively, it’s a reliable choice; however, it is more susceptible to interference and instability. If you encounter challenges, considering Ethernet as an alternative is a prudent option. After all, there are instances where a wired connection proves to be the superior choice.


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