“Honey (or Dad) will you fix the network again?” That’s the kind of greeting I’ve been getting far too frequently when I come home from work lately. Have you heard that one yet? Clouds are often used graphically to represent the network connections and it seems my personal cloud (home network) has been suffering some growing pains lately. This growth has required far more attention from the local IT-guy (me).
A few months ago, I attended CES in Las Vegas and this was one of the greetings waiting for me when I returned home from my travels. At the show I saw dozens of new products that will connect to your home network and it frightens me to think these problems are likely to get worse before they get better. I recently took an inventory of the number of IP devices on my personal home network and here is what I found: Up to 8 PCs at any given time; two webcams, two NAS drives, two IP printers, one Xbox360, one DVR, two Nintendo DS units, one Windows Mobile Phone with WiFi access and a Chumby! All of these asking my router for an IP address – that’s 20 devices!
I traced what seemed to be most of the problems to the fact that most of these devices were using dynamic IP assignments and a few were fixed IP addresses; many with the dynamic-IP assignments would store their IP address when they were in power-saving mode, yet act as if they were disconnected from the network. If the router got rebooted for any reason while any of those devices was asleep, the device that just woke up would most likely find an IP address conflict because another device was now assigned to its original IP address. Another reboot of the router only pushed the problem down to the next device that was temporarily off-line. As a fix, I went around the house and reassigned fixed IP addresses to all 20 devices – so far this strategy seems to be helping but it wasn’t easy. Perhaps there is another way to avoid this problem, but that’s not really the point.
One of the trends from this year’s CES was for more and more consumer IP devices for your home. Soon, many of the flat panel TVs and STBs are likely to have IP connections, BluRay players with network enhanced features are coming too. Many mobile phones already connect to WiFi, soon this may be a standard feature on all cell phones. The sales of Xbox360s and PS3s are skyrocketing – they need a network too. There are more IP-connected devices coming including robots, music players, Internet radios, media center extenders, cameras, picture frames, flash-memory, lights, thermostats, sprinkler timers, beds – a few years ago there was an Internet-capable refrigerator and I’ve even got an Internet-connected wristwatch (thankfully it doesn’t need its own IP address since it goes through the PC connection.) If you like gadgets like I do, your home will become its own cloud over the next few years.
To make matters worse, another trend at CES was for far more fragmentation in this home networking market, not more uniformity. My house was prewired with structured wiring and has Ethernet available (at one socket) in every room. I’ve added two WiFi access points at opposite corners of the house (one up, one down) to provide good wireless coverage with 802.11b/g and I also added an original HomePlug powerline modem to connect the IP webcam in the garden shed. That accounts for three separate physical layers (one wired, one powerline and one wireless) and more are coming.
On the wireless forefront, many routers are moving to 802.11n or “pre-N” since the standards aren’t quite finalized. It promises faster rates and better coverage, but with all the “pre-standardized” units, interoperability is in question. There were also product introductions for portable TV based on WiMax technology from Motorola and something called a femto cell providing CDMA access inside your home from Samsung. For shorter ranges (3M), there are high speed and low speed choices including the new 480 Mbps wireless USB standard and the popular Bluetooth technology (3 Mbps) which just released version-2.1+EDR. Wireless mesh networks are also growing in popularity and innovation, with competing solutions from ZigBee Alliance and Z-Wave Alliance, both are low-speed technologies aimed primarily at home control and automation.
Networks connected through power-lines also saw innovation and chaos at this year’s CES. There were at least two updated competing power-line networking technologies that offer faster speeds capable of sending HD video with better noise immunity and more reliability. One was from Panasonic called HD-PLC (190 Mbps) the other system is called HomePlug AV (200 Mbps). Some of these technologies are being built into flat-panel DTVs to eliminate the need for the unsightly video/audio cables.
The third physical layer in the home is the coax network. This is usually what is used to connect the TVs in your house. Recently a number of companies have introduced technology to use this cabling for home networking connections too. It offers many advantages because of its shielding and design for high frequencies. There were many innovations described at CES this year including demonstrations of HDMI over coax, 1394 over coax, Ethernet over coax, one that combines 1394 and GigE over coax and a popular system called MoCa which is now introducing components that support the latest version 1.1.
There are other groups working to standardize the home network connections too. CableLabs has published home networking extensions to the OpenCable Host & OCAP specifications and has approved content protection systems for IP-based home network connectivity. The 1394 trade association was demonstrating technologies and devices that can bridge 1394 protocols to coax, fiber and other new physical layers. The Hana Alliance was demonstrating whole-home high-definition video networking solutions also based on 1394 technology at CES and released their Hana 2.0 design guidelines. Meanwhile CEA’s own R7 Home Network Committee maintains a variety of home networking standards as well as active projects to define future remote user interface protocols.
A recent market study from MultiMedia Intelligence reported that shipments of Internet-Protocol (IP)-enabled consumer electronic products reached 64 Million units in 2007. They say this represents a nearly 73% growth. They also report that semiconductor revenues from technology that enables these interfaces will exceed $2 Billion by 2012. Clearly we are just at the beginning of a growth of home networking technology as this trend extends to more and more homes. This growth will impact some homes earlier than others. Those with pre-teens or young teens at home now, are likely to see the most significant growth over the next 5 years. Others will be impacted more gradually. If you still haven’t been asked to fix the network yet, you soon will be.