What Is a Ethernet Controller?

By Jacob Workman

To the average PC user, computer networking remains a mystery. Whether it's a hard line (wired) or wireless network, most end users just want their home network to function. Mentioning routers, NICs, ethernet cables, drivers and topologies only leads to confusion. However, there's no need to acquire a degree in order to understand basic computer networks, and you can find help resolving any issues that may arise.

Ethernet History

The first ethernet was designed in 1973 by Bob Metcalf who worked at the Xerox Corporation in Palo Alto, California. The amount of information it could transmit was 3 Mbps (megabytes per second). Seven years later, Intel, Digital and Xerox, known as the DIX cartel, created the 10 Mbps ethernet standard. In 1983, IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers) approved the 802.3 Standard, which was based off of the DIX ethernet.

Ethernet Controller

An ethernet controller is a small chip that handles all of the data that's exchanged between two computers via the Internet, a LAN or WAN. They come in a variety of different pin configurations including 48,100, 256, 276 and 883. Like most computer hardware, it requires software drivers in order for it to operate. Each controller has a set of its own features, and and some of the major companies that manufacture them are Intel, Broadcom, Atheros and VIA.

Computer Networking Basics

The need for offices to share information between multiple PCs became prevalent during the 1980s. To remedy this, Novell developed the first PC LAN called ShareNet. This allowed two or more computers to be connected and share information. Known as a local area network (LAN), it evolved into wide area networks (WAN), which expanded the reach past the immediate office area to across the country.

Communication Protocols

In order for computers to communicate with one another, they must all use the same rules for exchanging information. These rules are known as a communication protocol. The most popular of these protocols is for the Internet, known as TCP/IP, which is actually a suite of protocols. Without this installed, computers cannot connect to the Internet. All of the protocol information is routed through the ethernet controller.

Network Interface Card

It's possible to purchase a separate unit called a network interface card (NIC). This is a small circuit board that includes the ethernet controller and is plugged into a PCI slot on the motherboard. It provides a dedicated, constant network connection. However, many motherboards come with an RJ-45 port installed (the ethernet connection port) right on the motherboard, bypassing the need for a NIC. This adds more processing to the CPU but the amount is negligible for home use.