Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Beyond .11n

Last May the 802.11 group convened the Very High Throughput Study Group to scope out what comes after .11n. One motivation for starting the group was to respond to a call for proposals for Gbit-class wireless networks from the ITU. Craig Mathias of Farpoint Group, one of my favorite wireless analysts, believes the group will ultimately opt for some form of 60 GHz networking, but we shall see.

For the last few months the group has been listening to presentations from AT&T, Intel, Motorola, Nokia and others. I haven't looked through them all, but as part of a story that mentioned VHT SG I did read a couple of them.

The one that struck me the most was from an AT&T Labs researcher, calling on the group to get involved in Terahertz-class regulatory decisions underway in Europe that could cut commercial interests out of that spectrum band. Terahertz transceivers are already in the works from startups such as Phiar Corp. the presenter noted. Like my colleague Patrick Mannion told me years ago—before we even started talking about .11n—we are going to be writing a lot about this wireless stuff for years.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

More rumblings on powerline

By the way, the folks from powerline specialist DS2 did call me last week, and it turns out things may be a little less clear than I thought. Private discussions are still underway on all three aspects of the pending IEEE 1901 standard--access, in-home networking and co-existence, they say. As I reported this week, DS2 also is revving up a 400 Mbit/second physical layer technology that they will demonstrate in New York in November and have available for 2009-class products.

DS2 is putting on a big last-minute push in the face of strong votes that came down earlier this month for joint HomePlug/Panasonic proposals in access and in-home networking. Group chairman Jean-Phillipe Faure said he would not be surprised if a final decision is set by the March meeting.

Anything could still happen at this point, so this is a story well worth watching for the next few months. But it does appear the HomePlug folks are now in the cat bird's seat.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

UWB in the crosshairs

Kudos to Jack Shandle, editor of the Wireless Designline, for encouraging ultrawideband chip makers to get tested. Since Computex in June the word on the street has been that UWB products are getting a fraction of their promised throughput, and now its time to find out the truth.

Shandle has been rallying support for a test program sponsored by UWB competitor Pulse~Link and carried out by Octoscope, an independent lab. So far, Octoscope discovered a Belkin F5U301 wireless USB hub using Wisair and WiQuest chips gets less than 20 Mbits/s throughput at a range of up to 20 feet. A model F5U302 got up to 60 Mbits/s at two feet, the fastest of the products tested. An IOGear hub got 30 Mbits/s maximum and lost its connection at 13 feet. By contrast, transfers using wired USB links achieved 150 Mbits/s in the tests.

Vendors and at least one consultant say it's just the teething problems of early chips and drivers. But tester Fanny Mlinarsky says there must be something more afoot and she has plans for more thorough tests to get to the bottom of the issue.

Ironically, Intel Corp. announced earlier this year ambitious plans to push the wireless USB spec to a theoretical throughput beyond 4 Gbits/second in a version 3.0 now in an early draft. The UWB folks better get to 200 Mbits of MAC throughput before they burn much energy talking up multi-Gbit plans.

The folks in 802.11 land are preparing to eat UWB's lunch with their Very High Throughput Study Group investigating what's beyond .11n. What's more the 60 GHz crowd gained big backing from Big Blue this week.

UWB beware: There will be plenty of wireless local- and personal-area nets on the scene in the next few years, and the competition will leave little room for approaches that can't deliver on their promises.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

HomePlug surges forward

The results are in from Boston last week. No not the World Series, the IEEE P1901 meeting. Geez, guess I am kinda geeky.

Word is the proposals from the HomePlug/Panasonic/HiSilicon crew got the nod. They want to create a mandatory "interPHY protocol" so HomePlug or Panasonic powerline nets can sense and avoid each other. An optional part of the spec is to support both PHYs so the nets can actually interoperate. Interoperable networks, what a concept!

The proposal still has to get a 75% vote when the group gathers again in San Diego in December. (Here's hoping you are all safe from those horrible fires!) But backers say the three-quarters majority vote won't be hard to get.

I'm having trouble getting a full picture here because the DS2/UPA folks aren't talking to me. And no one has clarified what the coexistence proposals that got tabled at the Boston meeting are all about.

In the long run I have to wonder how much all this matters. HomePlug people will keep shipping their products and DS2 people theirs. Will consumer behavior shift in any way because there is a standard? Methinks not.

Hopefully tomorrow I can make time to catch you up on some UWB and Wi-Fi news, but for now it's late, I am tired and there is plenty to do tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Phoneline calls home

CopperGate Communications is crowing this morning that it has shipped more than two million of its HomePNA 3.1 CopperStream chipsets to OEMs such as Motorola, 2Wire and Scientific Atlanta. The technology owes a debt of gratitude to telcos such as AT&T driving into IPTV and pulling with them the familiar phoneline approach from the DSL days.

Kudos to this crowd who have toughed out plenty of up and down days as home networking slowly emerges. But the toughest part is yet ahead.

The home network is increasingly a heterogeneous environment. Next month CTO-class speakers from Cisco's Linksys group, Comcast, Motorola and Verizon will discuss their plans for Multimedia over Coax at an event in Austin. Earlier this month, a similar group talked about their plans to use powerline technology sponsored by the HomePlug group. And all this gets blended with the many Wi-Fi and alternative wireless products coming into the digital home from retail.

The home network is happening, but it is emerging as a patchwork quilt. That will open up whole new problems and opportunities over the next five years.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Stirring the wireless stew

Today sees the debut of no less than two new wireless personal area networking options and a proprietary spin on Wi-Fi.

In PANs, my colleague R. Colin Johnson relayed a story about how IBM has teamed up with Taiwan's MediaTek to field a 60 GHz chip set for wireless personal area networks. (I am not finding Colin's story online this morning, but see Cnet's version here.) The news hits the same day startup Radiospire emerges from stealth mode with its 1.7 GHz chip set.

IBM will build an RF chip in its silicon germanium process that MediaTek will pair with its baseband chip, both targeting the IEEE 802.15.3c standard. The link is expected to deliver multiple Gbits/second over 5-6 meters. It will compete with the WirelessHD effort launched earlier this year by startup SiBeam which is evangelizing the technology among OEMs with an ad hoc standards group.

Separately, Radiospire Networks announces today its AirHook chip set using the 1.7 GHz band to deliver throughput of 1.6 Gbits/s. The company loosely refers to its effort as wireless HD, but as far as I can tell it has no relation to the SiBeam or IBM technology. It's not clear to me whether it uses ultrawideband or some other approach.

But wait, there's more. Startup Avnera Corp. is announcing its AudioMagic chip set that uses a proprietary spin on 2.4 GHz wireless networking to send audio around the digital home in a way that it claims is superior to the omnipresent Wi-Fi. Hey, I heard that story before from a startup that wilted on the vine trying to get buy in for a unique spin of .11a for TV makers.

According to Colin's story, Avnera already has some market traction. The company claims it has design wins at a dozen major audio component makers, including Panasonic, and that foundry partner Jazz Semiconductor is in volume on the Avnera parts. Companies including Acoustic Research, AudioEngine, Best Buy and SDI Technology already have products out that have been quietly using the Avnera chips.

The startup claims its chips maintain 30 millisecond latency or less and solve error correction problems without needing to use retransmission techniques used in the more data-oriented Wi-Fi. Colin's story suggests some details about how they do it, and notes the downside is it means Avnera's chips won't work with anything else on the home Wi-Fi net.

Amazing, one day brings three new options for wireless in the digital home. This stew is getting pretty thick.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Another view of the flash drive future

Startup Fusion-io was making some interesting claims when it rolled out its first flash memory card for the PCI Express bus. The card hit 100,000 IOPS which Fusion and at least one competitor said was a new high water mark. A spokesman fro Hewlett0-Packard also voiced support for the Fusion-io card in a press release from the startup.

Fusion's CTO David Flynn said the next big move is getting operating systems to work on an overdue overhaul of the old block storage I/O structures to push to a million IOPS. That will open new doors for packing the equivalent of a storage network inside an existing server blade system with the card.

I ran those claims by Michael Krause, an interconnect expert at Hewlett Packard. His initial take was that the startups performance claims could be further detailed, OSes are moving ahead in I/O, but more needs to be done. Here's a short digest of Mike's reply:

"About 8 years ago, I spoke at a conference and showed moderately high-end servers at that time doing 1 million IOPS. Without additional information on the actual performance workload, it is hard to say whether this is really impressive or not.

"Any new technology that mandates software changes, especially in a major OS subsystem, often sees significantly slower adoption than the advocates believe will occur.

"There has been significant advancements in OS I/O structures including major advances in file systems and storage subsystems. All OS support the class driver model which allows storage technology to evolve rather transparently to the OS, [and] nearly all OS also support the ability to stack or substitute file systems without impacting the rest of the OS.

"It's true that SCSI hasn't changed in years, but that has more to do with the customer demand to keep the basic block storage model intact… There is agreement among many within the industry that the traditional block storage model is limited and that perhaps moving to object based storage is the next logical progression."

Thanks, Mike.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Round up for RIO

Thanks and a hat tip to Tom Cox, head of the RapidIO trade group, for a dash of news and humor after a looong day.

The news: Tundra Semi has rolled out a new RapidIO switch that bridges a bank of RIO DSPs to PCI-based host processors. It also has a special port to link to FPGAs while we wait for the FPGA crew to develop their own embedded RIO cores.

That's the only news of note I have heard from the ATCA Summit in Silicon Valley this week. I am away on business in Vancouver enjoying this town despite the rain. If I am missing anything else drop me a note at rbmerrit@cmp.com or leave a comment here.

Tom also pointed out that the processor AMCC released at the recent Power.org conference was its first with native RIO. The RIO ecosystem, such as it is, will double is size in 2008, he promises.

And the humor: Yesterday, I mistakenly referred to a home networking group as the Multimedia over Cox [sic] Alliance. The ever energetic Tom informed me he has not spawned any new interconnect initiatives but would gladly accept a nomination if anyone submits his name.

Monday, October 15, 2007

FCoE in high gear

The drive to craft Fibre Channel over Ethernet products is in high gear. Witness today's news that longtime card maker Emulex is teaming up with Cisco spin-out Nuova Systems to co-develop silicon.

The interesting bit here is that the pair already has working hardware under development testing in the lab (probably just an FPGA), expects to have qualification chips early next year and actually to be shipping products before the end of 2008. That's pretty darned fast given the T11 spec is not expected to be in draft form until April at the earliest, and the related IEEE 802.1au work may take even longer.

My take away is that everybody sees a real need here and the data center sector is in rare form putting aside competitive issues to make something happen. So who else out there wants to talk silicon for FCoE?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

MoCA gets frothier

I got a tip from a representative of the Multimedia over Coax Alliance who attended the HomePlug conference last week. The big news is the MoCA crew is announcing a version 1.1 spec soon. It will enable throughput of up to 175 Mbits/second at the media-access layer and support parameterized quality of service.

An Echostar rep also at the meeting said they pressed hard for the parameterized QoS, a capability that allows bandwidth guarantees for high priority apps like delivering that HD stream of the Super Bowl. Powerline and wireless technologies can't do that, he said, because they do not control access to their medium.

Also, Broadcom and Conexant are confirmed to be at work on MoCA chips, though no one has seen any sampling silicon yet. Word is MoCA parts may be a bit pricey compared to slower rate home net technologies, but it’s the throughput and QoS service providers demand.

I expect to attend a MoCA event next month, and hopefully there will be more news there. Meanwhile, as I said before, the home networking story will be a clash of service provider technologies and the Wi-Fi and powerline stuff consumers buy at retail and put in themselves.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Another surge on powerline

Just when I thought it was safe to go on to other topics (look for a Fibre Channel over Ethernet update Monday), there's more noise and data surging about powerline.

Chano Gomez, vice president for technology and strategic partnerships at DS2, blasted out an email today that didn't name names, but was clearly referring to the HomePlug/Panasonic proposal up for discussions at the IEEE 1901 Boston meeting Monday.

"It's the worst of all worlds - it's a Frankenstein standard," he wrote.

"Two or three separate PHY and MAC layers and two or three modems in a single chip…will certainly not supply interoperability. At best it will produce coexistence and is immensely short-term. It's a 'fudge' with all the cost implications that this entails," he added.

As I wrote here and at EE Times this week, the HomePlug/Panasonic proposal mandates a protocol that can detect either company's PHY and insure the nets do not interfere, but supporting both PHYs to share data is optional. DS2 and its supporters have also submitted a spec that aims primarily at co-existence. But now that a potential vote—that HomePlug could win—is approaching, the rival group seems to be singing a new tune, calling for one PHY that all sides agree to even if all have to rev their chips.

Oleg Logvinov of the HomePlug group suggests the DS2 proposal is in bad faith because the group declined to participate in the HomePlug AV standard. Of course, DS2 had a big market edge back then with customers shipping its 200 Mbit/s technology in April 2005, about two years ahead of HomePlug which had a coming out party for its 200 Mbit/s technology this week.

The proof is in the pudding, and that means all eyes will be watching for any flying Boston cream pies next week. Hopefully cooler heads will prevail.

One last note on powerline

At the HomePlug conference this week the chief executive of RadioShack gave a no-nonsense talk about what people pushing new technologies like powerline need to do to succeed. One element was addressing and articulating a real user need.

For Oleg Logvinov of Arkados that need is whole home audio. He showed his HomePlug 1.0 chips with a pair of direct-drive speakers from Tatung delivering music remotely from an iPod dock in another room. Wi-Fi has trouble doing this, especially in European homes with thick walls, and the powerline approach is not as dependent on a PC as a controller as Wi-Fi, Logvinov said. But Wi-Fi can't be having too many problems in this space, given Tatung and Roku are delivering products that meet a similar need.

Arkados has tailored its silicon to support this app with appropriate interfaces and an ARM core to handle audio processing. This is a pretty cool product, but I question whether the market is big enough to be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the startup that has toiled on this path seven years. With a $200 bill of materials, the speakers are a bit expensive for the casual iPod-using teen and I wonder if the HomePlug 1.0 speeds are adequate for the golden ears of the audiophile crowd. A Philips engineer on hand said Dolby audio requires latencies of less than 20 milliseconds, a capability it could be hard to insure on powerlines.

Powerline's in-house battle

Powerline proponents gather Monday at an IEEE 1901 meeting in Boston to see if they can hammer out a common spec—and sparks may fly. HomePlug and Panasonic have a proposal that mandates coexistence between them but makes interoperability optional. The DS2 crowd is calling for one PHY that everyone supports, even if it means new silicon. I'm convinced the DS2 approach is the right one, though I am not sure how sincere anyone is about biting this bullet. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Plugging into Zigbee

In this week's announcement of a new Command and Control spec under the HomePlug Alliance, I missed the bigger picture that the HomePlug group is taking on Zigbee in a pretty big way. A lot of the technology behind the new spec comes from Israeli startup Yitran which has a new 180nm chip in the works for the technology set to sample next year.

Avner Matmor, Yitran's chief executive, told me over lunch yesterday that he sees the two technologies as complementary, but clearly they have similar applications, costs and data rates. Yitran's 2008 module will have a bill of materials of about $3 initially and handle up to 7 Kbits/s over powerline, aimed at white goods, lights and alarms for a mix of OEMs and utilities. Matmor said he hopes in the future there will be a common protocol for Zigbee and the powerline technology, enabling hybrid wired/wireless home control nets.

In a way, powerline is coming full circle, back to its roots in X-10 home automation. But Matmor notes the difference is the new technology supports full networking capabilities and will handle Internet connections.

There's a protocol spec for the HomePlug C&C spec that won't be complete until the end of the year. Meanwhile, the rival Universal Powerline Association says it will complete a similar spec based on its technology sometime in 2008.

Look out Zigbee fans. The competition is powering up.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A patchwork home

Headed down to the HomePlug annual convention today, here are my views about home networking:

The Multimedia Over Coax crowd has a line into the cable TV providers who will likely start specifying their technology in next-gen set-top boxes soon. (Expect to hear more on this from the MoCA convention in November.) The IPTV folks such as AT&T are already specifying Hone Phoneline (HPNA) because it's mature and uses the familiar media and technology they became accustomed to in the early days of DSL routers. The powerline folks are getting some traction in retail because the Linksys and NetGears of the world have been shipping easy to use, low cost products, but those same folk have been spawning an even bigger surge in home Wi-Fi which rules the roost in home networking today and likely will well into the future.

These dynamics are setting us up for a lot of contention between different technologies. The biggest dispute on the home front will be between carrier-approved secure and nets with solid media delivery like MoCA and HPNA and the renegade Wi-Fi. It will take years to see how all this plays out, and it won't be pretty.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Another optical option for IB

Startup XLoom Communications, Inc. (Tel-Aviv) officially joined the crew offering an optical option for Infiniband today. It's AVDAT 4X takes CX4 connections up to 100 meters, competing with alternatives from giant Intel and startup Quellan.

The most interesting thing to me is that IB is projected to ship a million ports in 2008, quite a jump from about half that this year. No wonder multiple companies are trying to ride its coat tails. It's not vast like PCI or Ethernet but it's substantial.

The big flash pile on

Like so many instant trends in computing, everybody these days is trying to be the top of the heap in the big pile on to pack flash into PCs. Two novel approaches emerged just today.

I talked with David Flynn of Fusion-io late Friday who sketched out the company's push to update the guts of server block storage so the company can help "dissolve the SAN back into the server." It seems to me these folks are on to something significant. Look for more on the details of the Fusion controller and reactions to the startup's effort here and in print next week.

Separately, Insyde Software and Silicon Storage Technology tipped their plans to create a platform for flash in notebooks that other companies could build on. But I am skeptical about their FlashMate approach because the value of the new apps they sketch out seems ,marginal to me and the two companies have a lot of heavy lifting to do to create this platform and rally support for it. That's to say nothing about avoiding the ire of the giant in Redmond.

On thing is for sure, there's plenty of energy going into packing more flash into the PC over the next few years. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Hard(ware) times at Microsoft

I sat in on a panel discussion at the ARM Developers Conference yesterday and was blown away to hear a Microsoft executive suggest the company is doing about everything in silicon short of setting up a fab on the Redmond campus these days. Apparently, the Windows giant is seeing more and more hardware areas where it wants to play, in addition to the Xbox, Zune and its keyboard and mouse business. With more than its share of the profits of the computer industry at its command, it has the wherewithal to go after new hardware opportunities.

Thus Microsoft is now co-developing some form of media chip with a fables company because it could not get what it wanted in the merchant market. It is also investigating silicon opportunities in digital cameras, even as it helps drive the next generation JPEG XR standard forward.

In a sign of how serious the Microsoft silicon drive is the exec said "we are looking for [chip-level] tools to handle global resource contention and various kinds of bus and core interconnect architectures" for asymmetric embedded multi-core processors.

Microsoft may not be as far down the curve on system-on-chip design as ARM and the rest of the semiconductor industry, but I don't doubt they have the bucks, people and guts to drive fresh directions. The company's work with the Berkeley RAMP system may be a bellwether for things to come. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Ultrawideband narrowing?

I hear at least one prominent ultrawideband startup is on shaky ground these days. Layoffs look likely and a buy out may be in the works, I am told. It's an unfortunate situation because the technology has plenty of promise, especially in home networking.

It's not that surprising that UWB may be in a consolidation phase. Plenty of startups have grown up around this emerging technology over the past five years, seeded by the usual more than adequate supply of competing venture capital bucks. But there have been plenty of technical and regulatory hurdles to getting products out the door. Indeed, last year Moto and Freescale backed off UWB after making a big push in the area. The wireless USB standard has taken a year or more longer to come to market than backers expected. And consumer electronics OEMs and especially service providers—among the biggest targets for UWB—are pretty conservative when it comes to sending high quality media wirelessly.

Hopefully markets like wireless USB and some proprietary personal area nets will take off soon to give the many fledglings some traction. But in the meantime I am seeking input from anyone who knows about the startup (or maybe there is more than one) in trouble. Post your comment or drop a line to rbmerrit@cmp.com

Monday, October 01, 2007

NAND drive rides PCIe

How soon they forget! As far as I can tell I was the first tech journalist to write about Fusion I/O (Salt Lake City) and their plans for a novel controller to take solid-state drives to a new level. Last week the startup formally launched its first product, without bothering to drop me a line.

The ioDrive is a 4x PCIe card for servers that delivers 80-640 Gbytes. I think it uses multi-level cell flash which typically has a reduced operating life over the traditional single-cell chips, but the company's Web site is vague. It is clear on performance, stating the drive executes 100,000 IOPS (input/output per second) per card with sustained data rates of 800MB/sec (read) and 600MB/sec (write).

That compares favorably with high-end, solid-state server drives such as the 3.5-inch Zeus from Stec that packs 146 Gbytes and delivers 50,000 I/OPS riding hard disk interconnects such as SATA. Fusion IO showed its card running in a Hewlett-Packard blade server at last week's Demo Fall '07 conference, but it has not detailed the technology inside its controller chip yet. (I've got a call into them.)

The company does say the controller uses error correction and wear-leveling to deliver a service life of eight years compared to the five year service life of hard drives. The cards, which will be available early next year for $30 per Gbyte, can be used for either local storage or CPU caching across a wide range of server apps.

Although Fusion IO seems to have an edge, this is an increasingly crowded space. I have heard there are a few other companies with flash controllers in the works, including Marvell. And Intel's Pat Gelsinger held up a solid-stat drive at the Intel Developer Forum just two weeks ago and promised the world's biggest chip maker will get into this market, too.

What will Intel do? Will it make a difference? Heard any details on upcoming controllers from Marvell or startups? Drop a comment or email me at rbmerrit@cmp.com