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Issue of July 2004 

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Connectivity Trends


The term 'connectivity' is no longer restricted to computer networks and now various service providers can offer you connectivity. Here's a look at some emerging network technology trends. by Chan Chi-loong

The phrase "to be connected" used to conjure up images of an old boys' network of rich and influential people. Nowadays, that idea is likely to be slightly different. Ask the man on the street what connectivity means, and he will tell you that it is whether his mobile phone can access the cellular network.

The concept, however, is the same: all networks serve to connect people and businesses.

As content becomes increasingly digitalized, the traditional worlds of cellular telephony, broadcast and computing are starting to collide. The result is that network vendors, Internet/telephony service providers and traditional phone operators are all fighting to be the one to connect users to content, people and businesses. Further on, we'll look at some network technology megatrends that will shape the future.

The Internet backbone and IPv6

The Internet has become a multipurpose network serving our voice, video and data needs, far beyond the humble role of a data network for which it was originally conceived.

According to CSC, the Internet was used by about 400 million people worldwide in 2002, will rise to 1 billion in 2005, and reach 3 billion by 2010. Besides the obvious potential for business, the Internet has become an indispensable communications medium through which e-mail, VoIP and rich applications connect.

One critical problem is the lack of address spaces. IPv4, which uses 32-bit addressing, theoretically has more than 4 billion addresses, reduced in practice due to IP class implementations. While this appeared sufficient in 1981, experts predict we'll run out of addresses in a year or two.

The solution is of course IPv6, which uses 128-bit addressing that provides theoretically over 340 undecillion addresses (340 x 1036). Given that the number of grains of sand on Earth is estimated to be around 1024, this means that IPv6 allows any reasonable object on Earth to have an address, paving the way for a world where every machine can theoretically be connected. The IPv6 specification, besides solving the address space problem, also facilitates the implementation of crucial features like quality of service, security and configuration.

"Already, the industry is expecting [IPv6] to take place in 2005/2006 in a major way here in the region due to the lack of IPv4 addresses," says Selinna Chin, Managing Director of IDC Malaysia, Indonesia and Philippines. "Many vendors have already launched or are planning to launch solutions to support this."

Nokia Network's Ricky Corker, Director of Mobile Systems, Asia Pacific echoed this sentiment: "IPv6 limited deployment has already begun." He explained that due to the limitations in IPv4 addresses, most operators are currently using NAT (Network Address Translation) to support the fast growing numbers of GPRS users. However, new mobile peer-to-peer services, such as rich calls, multiplayer gaming and Push-to-Talk using SIP/IMS, will only work well if publicly visible IP addresses are used. "For future services, deployment of IPv6 becomes crucial," says Corker.

The Wireless Last Mile

Connection to a network must be pervasive and easily accessible--so what if you have the latest cell phone but it is out of range and unable to connect to your service provider? This problem is typically known as the "last mile/foot", the problem of bringing the network right up to your doorstep and connecting directly with your devices.

There are a mind-boggling number of technologies that serve to connect the last mile/foot. In wireless-to-air technologies alone we have 2.5G, 3G, 4G, WiFi 802.11x, WiMax 802.16, UWB (Ultra Wide Band), and Bluetooth, just to name a few.

Which of these technologies will win out in the end to deliver the content? The answer is extremely hazy, as the technologies serve different needs and purposes. For example, cellular networks' key points are voice and mobility, whereas WiMax is a high-speed point-to-multipoint broadband architecture.

"There is a lot of confusion going on in wireless technologies, and it probably won't die down for another four to five years," says Dr Mike Gauba, a professor researching 4G technologies at the Korea University of Technology and Education. He adds that technologies which have well-known standards like WiFi (even with attendant problems like running in an unregulated radio spectrum) are likely to remain very visible technologies.

Bill Koff, Executive Director of CSC's Leading Edge Forum, and CTO of CSC's consulting group, feels that there will eventually be less competing technologies, making it easier for applications to connect with each other. "Behind the illusion of a unified network [running on IP] is an amalgam of heterogeneous components.” Reducing the number of technologies used to implement the last foot of the network will improve the seamless feel for users.

Whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that pervasive wireless technologies are here to stay and will shape the world for years to come. For example, wireless access points are cheap, easy to deploy, and have started sprouting all over the world in airports, libraries and cafes. Companies like Starhub and Connexion by Boeing provide airlines like SIA with fast wireless access on their airplanes, while Bluetooth technology invades our PDAs and mobile phones.

Application: Presence

"Users don't use high-speed data; they use applications," says Amit Bose, President of Telecom, Tata Teleservices, India. In this regard, he is absolutely correct--what drives people to use services are the applications. The network is undoubtedly important for providing the underlying infrastructure to make applications viable, but in the grand scheme of things, the end user only sees the applications.

One such application in the networked future is presence. We see presence whenever we use IM (instant messaging), where we can chat with fellow users or tell them we are not in the mood for conversation. Now extend this concept to your mobile phone or PDA, and presence takes on a whole new dimension, allowing you to be connected and in touch anytime, anywhere.

Application: Location and RFID

Another key application is location. This lets us know exactly where we are so that we will never be lost as long as we have network coverage. It allows us to do proximity searches, e.g. find the nearest grocery store within two kilometers from my current location. While location can be used for mundane things like never losing your car keys, by using an embedded RFID (Radio Frequency ID) tag with a unique IPv6 address to allow you to search for it on the Internet--it can also have important applications for the community.

For example, during last year's SARS scare, Alexandra Hospital in Singapore implemented a pilot study in May 2003 to do contract tracing of all patients, staff and visitors at the Accident and Emergency (A&E) ward using RFID tags. Every person who entered the A&E ward was issued with an appropriate ID card (embedded with an RFID chip). Whenever a person wandered into the wrong area or left without telling, an alarm would be sent to the staff. The system also allowed for quick location of individuals and an easy way to manage contact tracing, and was specially designed to handle the large movement of people during an epidemic.

Embedded RFID is one crucial piece of technology that governments and research agencies believe will strongly impact our lives and the economy. The Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) of Singapore announced in May 2004 it is investing S$10 million over 3 years to boost and develop RFID technology.

"RFID is a process technology that adds strategic value to manufacturing, logistics, distribution and retail supply chain," says IDA chairman Lam Chuan Leong.

Security and Management

Just as business capabilities move up the stack from infrastructure to networked applications, so must security and management move up the stack. Attacks once targeted at networks will increasingly be targeted at services, and these attacks will have a far larger effect when our world becomes more connected.

Similarly, service management tools need to step up to monitor and manage networked applications. These capabilities, together with the network technology infrastructure, are necessary for the vision of a connected world. They are also necessary for many lofty IT goals like utility computing and computer grids, which many major IT vendors are touting. Like in any old boys' club, however, "connected" companies will win, and the rest will lose out.

Courtesy: CMP Business Media

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