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Media-aware networks

At Ubicom, we have been advocating an approach to these issues that adds a level of intelligence to networking devices to allow them to dynamically adjust to the physical network environment and the application usage at any given instant. And this is done wholly within the network device itself. There is no need to rely on vulnerable, static, tag-based QoS information.

Such media-aware networks don't try to follow a pre-defined set of rules for behavior since, as noted before, any set of rules that was appropriate at lunchtime may well be completely useless in the evening. Not only that, but in a home environment, the software running on the network changes from day to day and week to week. A media-aware network employs a more active and dynamic approach, optimizing the performance of whatever applications are actually currently utilizing the network.

This concept is probably most easily explained by looking at some specific examples of applications, such as online gaming over the Internet and media streaming within the home network.

Returning to Table 1, one can see that most applications currently deployed on the Internet were, in fact, designed to work within its bandwidth constraints. Most broadband connections provide an uplink bandwidth of a few hundred kilobits per second so most applications either stay within that limit or adapt to use as much bandwidth as available.

Consider a simple case where an online game starts up during a voice call (for instance, via an instant messaging client such as Skype). As the game starts, it does a bulk transfer of information, for example to transfer map information to the client. The Internet connection is instantly congested, and the voice call either degrades or drops completely.

This could be fixed by setting a QoS rule that says Skype is higher priority than game traffic (though on most products this is easier said than done). But later that evening, someone uses Skype again to make a video call or transfer a file. Once again, the available bandwidth is saturated, only now it's the game that begins to lag.

If you consider the many permutations of this type of interaction across many different applications, it is essentially impossible to come up with a set of static QoS rules to ensure a great quality experience for every application and every user in the home.

A media-aware network, on the other hand, simply adapts the relative priority of these traffic streams on the fly to ensure that both the game and voice calls proceed uninterrupted.

For traffic originating within the home network itself, the problems differ slightly. Here, a number of emerging applications have simply been waiting for the installation of high bandwidth networks before they could become entirely practical and widely deployed, the most interesting example being video streaming, especially now that game consoles are becoming media players.

Moving video is, of course, very bandwidth intensive. Just how much bandwidth can a user reasonably expect to see in a home network?

Wired Ethernet is certainly an option in the home and available very cost effectively, even at gigabit speeds today. The main problem is getting the wire from the router to the "Entertainment Island" underneath the television. If that's not practical, wireless or power-line networking can bridge the gap.

With multiple tens of megabits of throughput, the better performing wireless and powerline products are more than capable of supporting streaming video, as always with the caveat that it can be prioritized appropriately on the wireless network.

As discussed above, relying on legacy equipment to deliver QoS tagging for all of this traffic can be hit-or-miss at best. On the other hand, media-aware networking products are available to deliver optimal performance for applications such as YouTube, Joost, Skype, Vonage and Netflix Online.

The "media-aware" network accounts for the mix of applications and the bandwidth required by each. Media are dynamically identified, each separate stream is appropriately prioritized, and all data moves efficiently throughout the network.

As consumers rely more and more on digital media at home for work, play and communications, it is essential that they understand the role of their home network in making sure that they can continue to get the most out of digital living.

About the Author
Keith Morris leads Ubicom's product marketing, business development and customer engineering activities. Prior to Ubicom, he served as Senior Director of Product Management and Marketing at Applied Microcircuits Corporation (AMCC) and Director of Marketing at MMC Networks. Keith has more than 18 years of experience in the semiconductor industry and has also held positions in engineering and management at Fujitsu and GEC/Plessey. He can be reached at

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