What is Thick Ethernet?

Jessica Ellis

Thick Ethernet, also called 10Base-5, thicknet, or yellow Ethernet is an early form of networking hardware, designed to hook two or more devices together on one computer network. Although thicknet was the original standard for networking, it has since fallen out of favor. The development of faster, more flexible Ethernet cables has caused it to become largely outdated, but it still has some usefulness due to its long-distance capabilities.

Ethernet cables plugged into an Internet switch.
Ethernet cables plugged into an Internet switch.

Ethernet technology was developed in the early 1970s at Xerox PARC, but the idea was thought to be a failure. In 1976, after successfully demonstrating the capabilities of thick Ethernet, one of the inventors, Robert Metcalf, convinced three major companies to adopt Ethernet technology as their standard for networking. Thick Ethernet became a commonly used networking product, and Metcalf’s new company, 3Com, went on to become a global success.

Thicknet cables fell out of favor due to the rise of the modern flexible Ethernet cables.
Thicknet cables fell out of favor due to the rise of the modern flexible Ethernet cables.

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The cable works like the map of a bus route, with a single coaxial cable connecting the networking devices together. Each device or node is attached by a cable to a transceiver, which hooks directly onto the Ethernet cable. The Ethernet cable is extremely sturdy, although somewhat inflexible, keeping it well protected from external damage.

One of the benefits of thicknet is that it can stretch long distances. One single yellow Ethernet cable can reach a maximum length of 1650 feet (500 meters). This also allows up to 225 individual nodes to hook into the Ethernet, although the devices must be spaced at least 8.25 feet (2.5 meters) apart.

Thicknet is beneficial in that its heavy coating insulates the connection, not only from external damage, but also from interfering electronic noise, a problem with some thinner cables. It is also an extremely simple means of creating a network, since the single cable makes the whole system easy to plan. Its long length can be helpful to anyone creating a large network.

Problems with the thicknet have caused it to be surpassed by many newer forms of Ethernet. The inflexibility of the cable makes it difficult to moving or changing the position of network devices. Thick Ethernet also has difficulty when dealing with nodes that are powered from different sources. The difference in voltage can cause a potentially damaging loop of an electrical current. This problem is common with thick Ethernet, and newer technology has managed to largely solve the issue.

Possibly the largest problem with thick Ethernet is that the simple interconnection process leaves the door open to total system failure. If any part of the cable or any node fails, the entire network may go down. This possibly more than any other reason, has lead to the reduction in use of thick Ethernet.

In modern applications, however, thicknet has found a new use as a backbone for networking. By hooking in several small, separate networks through 10 Base-T hubs, the yellow Ethernet can create one giant network. In this way, thick Ethernet remains a common utility in networking procedure, thirty years after its creation.

An ethernet cable.
An ethernet cable.

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