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Enter the smart network

As we enter the 21st century, users want more from their networks. What technologies are at their disposal?

As we enter the 21st century, users want more from their networks. What technologies are at their disposal? asks Danny Bradbury

It was researchers at Xerox Parc in the US who first founded the networking technology that would become the Ethernet standard, but they could hardly have predicted how widespread networking would become.

The rise of the PC led to an unprecedented need for data communications infrastructures within companies.

When such networks first came into commercial use, companies were just glad that they had the necessary pipes to send data between machines. Now, however, as local and wide area networks move into the next century, people want more from their networks.

Network technology is progressing in several different areas. Many of them come under one, easy-to-define banner, however: "smart networking".

Companies want to use the network as a basis for more functional applications. The convergence of voice and data into the same network infrastructures is only the start of this trend.

As companies get the hang of that, they will use it to build applications that bring voice and data together in new ways. Unified messaging is one example, as is the idea of routing voice calls through your IP network to different company staff, depending on which customer is making the call, and what their history is.

This convergence is creating a need for more intelligent networks.

Instead of just shoving data down a pipe, companies want to have more control about how it is routed and which users it reaches. The low latency characteristics of Voice over IP calls means that data packets constituting a voice call must be sent more quickly than other packets.

This has created a need for enhanced quality of service, which has perhaps been one of the biggest networking trends in the past five years. Still in its early stages, quality of service entails the prioritising of different traffic.

Different quality of service protocols are emerging, such as Multi-Protocol Label Switching, which provides labels in packet headers, and Differentiated Services, which provides another way to categorise traffic flow. The Reservation Protocol is used to set aside resources over the network.

While some companies continue to push the envelope in the area of quality of service and policy-based networking, others are attempting to create networks that are almost transparent to users.

The idea of pervasive computing has been around for some three or four years now, but it is only recently that companies have started to produce technologies that make it possible.

In a pervasive computing scenario, the network becomes ubiquitous, and all the devices on it are able to speak to each other and access each other's services.

Consequently, someone using a palmtop connected to the Internet via a mobile link will, theoretically, be able to store data on an unspecified server on the other side of the world, as long as they have the right access privileges.

A person using a laptop would be able to print out their Powerpoint presentation in a repro shop downtown, paying for the job online and picking it up they drive through the area to their next appointment.

At a corporate level, pervasive computing is being realised in such schemes as Microsoft’s .net initiative, which promises to place software services on the Internet that can be accessed by applications and people from outside the firewall.

Technologies such as the Simple Object Access Protocol are an intrinsic part of this story. It reflects the ultimate logical conclusion of the Internet as a means of universal access to remote services.

While the software gurus work at giving more brains to the network, hardware suppliers are also toiling away to give it more brawn.

Ethernet bandwidths originally started at 2 megabits per second, but have grown to gigabit per second speeds. Now, the 10Gbit Ethernet Alliance has been formed to support the development of the 802.3ae 10Gbit Ethernet standard. Formed in February this year, the alliance announced in July that the taskforce responsible for the standard had approved its core content. This is a continuation of the exponential growth of Ethernet bandwidths.

Meanwhile, the evolution of third generation mobile networking technologies complements the growth of terrestrial local area network-based bandwidths.

There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in network technology. With both network intelligence and sheer bandwidth growing at a tremendous rate, the possibilities are endless.

One thing is for sure: now that we are all well and truly connected, there’s no going back.

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