Beavers trio keeps data flowing in the fast lane

Three Oregon State alumni.

Photo by Karl Maasdam

Kent Lusted (left), Douglas Boom, and Fred Barbee have been with Intel for a combined 73 years.

Douglas Boom speaks about Ethernet with a level of respect that borders on spiritual reverence. It’s easy to attribute his attitude to professional pride, a career full of noteworthy accomplishments, and a job that he clearly loves. But it doesn’t take long to understand that there’s much more behind his message, and he’s out to spread the word.

“I’m an Ethernet evangelist zealot,” said Boom, B.S. computer science ’92, principal engineer, Ethernet software, for Intel in Portland. “I’m not kidding when I say that Ethernet is the fabric of society. If it disappears, society collapses. Full stop.”

Ethernet is the ubiquitous technology that many people associate with that thick cable that plugs into their computers and routers. It links computers in local area networks so they can exchange data at high speeds. A LAN may comprise a few computers in a home, a few dozen in an office, a few hundred on a college campus, or tens of thousands in a cloud data center. Ethernet LANs connect to one another, and to the rest of the internet, through outside, usually public, telecommunications lines.

“For me, ethernet is like the Force,” said Kent Lusted, B.S. electrical engineering ’99, principal engineer and leader of Intel’s Ethernet PHY standards. “It surrounds us, it binds us all, it’s everywhere.”

Lusted works with customers, competitors, and suppliers to maintain and develop the standards that enable Ethernet components, like cards and routers, to interact seamlessly with one another, no matter what vendor supplies them or how old they are. “It’s amazing that a 40-year-old Ethernet controller can send data across a network to something that’s using bleeding-edge technology,” he said.

Four decades after Ethernet was invented, its uses have expanded beyond measure. “It has evolved from its original purpose to literally thousands of different applications,” said Fred Barbee, B.S. electrical and computer engineering ’91, Intel’s director of Ethernet customer solutions.

Ethernet is used in vending machines, televisions, cash registers, cars, the stock market, ventilators — too many things to count, according to Boom. His own work has included Ethernet in marine radar, theme-park rides, synchronized concert light shows for an A-list rock band tour, a digital “flight bag” that tells pilots how to find their gates after landing, technology to keep space shuttle astronauts safe, and automobile safety and braking systems. He’s even written software for an Ethernet controller on the Mars rover Perseverance.

But his most important work, personally, was a simple debugging of a glitchy ultrasound machine. The minor project could easily have been forgotten, but a couple of years later, Boom’s wife had a cancer scare and needed some tests. While the couple waited and worried in the exam bay, Boom noticed that the ultrasound machine was the exact same one he had fixed. “It was the coolest thing to think that my work might save her life,” he said. “Seeing that what I do can change lives around me and around the world is what really motivates me.” Fortunately, his wife was completely OK.

For Lusted, the defining moment of his career came right after the start of the pandemic lockdown. “The world shifted to a virtual environment practically overnight,” he said. “All the infrastructure for which I’d been developing specifications during the previous year worked — ethernet to the home, Ethernet in schools, Ethernet through data centers — all of it stepped up and handled the load seamlessly so business, education, and many other things could continue as normally as possible under very difficult conditions.”

A pivotal experience for Barbee was the three years he worked at an electronics startup before joining Intel. “It was so intense; it was like I had gotten my bachelor’s degree at Oregon State and a real-world advanced degree at that startup. The company didn’t make it, but what I learned has been useful throughout my career.”

The nature and time of those inflection points differed, of course, but they all trace back to the common origin of Oregon State, which they regard with — almost — as much admiration as they do for Ethernet.

“The breadth of the curriculum exposed us to a wide variety of subjects, like physics, chemistry, music, business, and economics, and that turned out to be a tremendous advantage,” Lusted said. “As my role evolved from being a hardcore engineer to being a leader of other industries in a public domain, I’ve relied more and more on skills and experiences woven into the curriculum and culture of Oregon State. The courses I took also sparked my curiosity. As long as you keep that open mind, you always see something new, try something new. The attitude was ‘What do you want to do today? Great, then go do it.’”

“It’s a really strong program,” Barbee added. “We’ve had tremendous success hiring Beavers. I would stack up the Oregon State graduates we’ve hired against graduates from any other program in the country.”

March 28, 2023