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How Ethernet Works


In our dinner table analogy, we had only a few people at a table carrying out the conversation, so restricting ourselves to a single speaker at any given time was not a significant barrier to communication. But what if there were many people at the table and only one were allowed to speak at any given time?

In practice, we know that the analogy breaks down in circumstances such as these. With larger groups of people, it is common for several different conversations to occur simultaneously. If only one person in a crowded room or at a banquet dinner were able to speak at any time, many people would get frustrated waiting for a chance to talk. For humans, the problem is self-correcting: Voices only carry so far, and the ear is adept at picking out a particular conversation from the surrounding noise. This makes it easy for us to have many small groups at a party converse in the same room; but network cables carry signals quickly and efficiently over long distances, so this natural segregation of conversations does not occur.

Ethernet networks faced congestion problems as they increased in size. If a large number of stations connected to the same segment and each generated a sizable amount of traffic, many stations may attempt to transmit whenever there was an opportunity. Under these circumstances, collisions would become more frequent and could begin to choke out successful transmissions, which could take inordinately large amounts of time to complete. One way to reduce congestion would be to split a single segment into multiple segments, thus creating multiple collision domains. This solution creates a different problem, as now these now separate segments are not able to share information with each other.

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