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IEEE 802 Standards Committee Turns 30

The IEEE 802 Standard Committee, turns 30 on March 13th and has been a major influence on data networking. Ethernet is the OSI layer two standard for data communications and in 30 years, the speeds at which Ethernet operates has risen four orders of magnitude from 10 Mbps to 100 Gbps, and the diversity of where it is used (LAN, WAN, wireless) has grown. Indeed, topics have exploded from frame formats to power management and study groups to analyze esoteric events like static discharge in copper cables. That's a lot of work for a 30 year old group.

A lot of commentators complain that standards groups tend to be slow and unresponsive to the needs of consumers of standards products, such as enterprises and end-users. Paul Nikolich, chariman of the 802 Standards Development Group, counters that most standards work follows a three to four-year process from inception to finalization. During that time, participants hammer out the details that formulate the interoperable standards we have today. Given the number of standards that have been developed and are in use, the 802 Standards Committee has been very busy.

Nikolich points to three key factors for the 802 Standards Committee's success. The first is innovation through consensus. The people who attend and participate in standards work, which he says (contrary to popular belief) is open to all, work together to build the standards. The work is contentious at times, and there isn't always unanimous agreement within the groups, but through consensus, interoperable and applicable standards are developed. Sometimes the innovation comes through in unforeseen ways.  

For instance, a group of people within 802.4 Task Group predicted wireless networking and searched for other projects in the IEEE that might be candidates for a wireless media access layer. Finding none, the 802.4l Task Group was formed to evaluate using token bus for wireless. The group found that Token Bus wasn't a fit for wireless and 802.4l was reformed as 802.11, tasked with developing the wireless LAN standards we use today.

The second factor Nikolich attributes to 802's success is the impact of standards through broad application. We have certainly seen the impact of the standardization of Ethernet on networking. Any Ethernet NIC can be plugged into any Ethernet switch and it works. Even features like automatic link detection, link aggregation, device identification and power distribution to end devices is fully automated. Ethernet has evolved from a LAN standard to providing long haul WAN connectivity through Carrier Ethernet, wireless over 802.11, and is merging storage and data networking by making Ethernet lossless through Data Center Bridging.

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