Electronic Design

Show Report: Interop

Interop, in case you are not familiar with it, is the largest conference devoted to network interoperability-both wired and wireless-related hardware, software and systems. The show is primarily for IT types looking to buy equipment or solve current problems. The overall mission of the conference is to track and support getting the right information to the right person via IP communications. As a design engineer, this may not be the show for you?unless you want to talk to your customers, see what the latest trends and needs are, or just take a look at your competitors. And it doesn’t hurt that the show is in Las Vegas.

This is the 20th year...yes, 20 years...of Interop. My how time flies. It has more or less replaced the older Comdex shows, which were huge. Traditionally, Interop is a very large show. In fact, the last time I went, I never did get to see it all. This year, the show was held in the Mandalay Bay convention center, in interesting change of venue given its previous location in the larger Las Vegas Convention center. It was definitely a smaller venue this year, but still a big show.

This year, the focus of the show was “Interop Makes You Smart,” and in more than one respect, it does. In addition to the usual sessions and exhibits, this show also offers some good one-day tutorials and workshops. These high-ticket supplementary events have greater depth than the usual conference sessions…very worthwhile for keeping up to date. I strongly recommend these if your employer can afford it.

NEXT: The Big Picture

The Big Picture

Given the size of the show, it is frustrating to know you are there, but can only see a fraction of it. If you go, focusing is the only way to get your money's worth. I zeroed in mainly on the wireless area, but did catch up on a few other trends and issues. One big emphasis was on voice over Internet protocol (VoIP). About 33% of companies have already incorporated it, but another 25% expect to add VoIP in the next year. Other major coverage included the increased need for and installation of 10 Gb/s Ethernet LANs and MANs; larger, faster Ethernet switches; and a huge emphasis on improved security at all levels. All of the networking products seem aimed at getting ready for the forthcoming deluge of data resulting from VoIP, and especially video, namely IPTV and VOD.

John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems, opened the show with a big glitzy keynote. It was all pretty general, but he did point out the three major trends in IT: globalization, mobilization, and virtualization. He said that the solution to the future of IT success was that the network would become the platform upon which all services will be built. The network permits the collaboration and teamwork needed for virtualization.

Chambers said that the network is the most scalable price/performance platform to come along since the microprocessor. We are moving into an era when any device can access any application at any time from any place. But security needs to move toward being fully embedded into all aspects of the system. All easier said than done.

NEXT: Wireless Innovation

Wireless Innovation

As for wireless, the WLAN continues to grow and become more useful and sophisticated. There were lots of new products taking advantage of new hardware and software to install, test, manage and troubleshoot Wi-Fi access points and related equipment. Wi-Fi continues to grow from over 100 million units in 2005 to over 400 million units in 2009 according to In-Stat. A key driver of this technology is VoIP over Wi-Fi. And Wi-Fi is continuing to make inroads into more non-PC/laptop applications such as remote monitoring and control. The Wi-Fi Alliance reports over 250 member companies, 10 test/certification labs and over 2500 actual certified products.

There was also considerable discussion on the forthcoming 802.11n higher speed version of Wi-Fi. While the show got underway in Las Vegas, the IEEE task group (TG) voted, but did not approve, the first draft of the proposed standard. So it is back to the drawing board as the TG works to iron out the few, but ugly, issues remaining. In the meantime, several vendors are delivering chips (Atheros, Broadcom, Marvell, etc.) that are supposedly n-draft compliant, but may not be when the standard is ratified in 2007. To add to the standard delay, 11n may have a power consumption problem in anything but a laptop with all the multiple radios and DSPs. And will the latency of the 11n system be too great for VoIP over Wi-Fi? But despite these issues, the core of 11n technology, multiple input multiple output (MIMO), is very highly regarded because it extends the range of an AP and node while improving reliability. Those two factors lead to increased data rates as well. MIMO is expected to find its way eventually into 4G cell phone systems.

WiMAX came up as a solution to the high-speed broadband problem in some areas. That standard is fully blessed at this point, and is finally seeing some applications. Yet, some of the presenters felt that regular 3G cell phone systems (EV-DO, EDGE, WCDMA, HSDPA, etc.) would be a better choice for those want a fast laptop connection.

Mesh networks continue to get lots of conference coverage. In addition to their invaluable use in large sensor networks, mesh is finding its way into Wi-Fi, helping to create larger WLANs. Good examples are the municipal Wi-Fi networks that cities like San Francisco are building to provide Internet access citywide. ZigBee continues to make great progress in creating a variety of mesh networks for monitoring and control. In the home automation and control space, however, ZigBee is getting some fierce competition from alternative wireless devices from Analog Devices, Cypress, Insteon, Maxim, and newcomer Z-wave. It’s just one more example of how finely the wireless market is sliced and diced.

NEXT: Wireless Innovation, cont'd

As for RFID, it too continues to make progress in deployment as standards are established and tag prices decline. With increased RFID deployment and experience, more and more designers are finding that active (battery powered), rather than passive, tags are the more useful because of their greater read range and reliability. Yet there are no standards for active tags, yet. Some think RFID has a scaling problem. As the number of tags to be read increases, so does the need for more readers and the back end software and middleware to handled the blizzard of tag data. One presenter indicated that there may end up being more RFID tag readers networked than all the PCs in the world. Whoa....

Another speaker indicated that with all the different types of wireless systems available, there was still one uncovered sector?wireless for uncompressed video. Compressing video is the current method of making it possible to transmit digital video with current wireless technologies. Yet compression compromises the quality. What we need is the wireless equivalent of the high definition media interface (HDMI) used with HDTV. It would be something that could stream uncompressed video at a rate up to 1.5Gb/s. It is probably going to have to be optical or millimeter waves for the physical layer.

Another key trend in wireless is the fixed mobile convergence (FMC). Cell phones are incorporating VoIP over Wi-Fi capabiltity, so that when a person enters the enterprise, his connectivity is via APs in the building. Such a phone may end up being an employee's office phone, as well as his or her cell phone. The handoff problem in completing a smooth transition from a cell-based call to an AP-based continuation is being conquered with new standards work (802.11r) and new systems like UMA (universal mobile access).

The wireless MAN battle is still to be fought. It will pit entrenched 3G cell phone technologies like EV-DO, EDGE, HSDPA, and WCDMA against WiMAX, and, unexpectedly, against meshed muni-WiFi. With so many carriers already offering 3G wireless data services, this will no doubt be the winner. Yet, most speakers agreed that WiMAX is an excellent technology that will no doubt find some takers. Meshed Wi-Fi may not have the staying power to compete here for the long term.

NEXT: New Products

New Products

As for new products at Interop, there was a plethora. Here is a sampling of some of the outstanding products I discovered:

Agere Systems:
Agere Systems announced that 3Com had selected their 48-port Gigabit Ethernet (GE) switch for use in the 3Com Baseline Plus family of switches. The ET3K is the only single chip 48-port for Gigabit Ethernet. This works with the new Agere Octal TruePHY 1081.

Broadcom also showed some new networking chips. The big one was the BCM56700?a 16-port 192 Gb/s lossless switch fabric. Other new products were the ROBOswitch chip with 48-port of Fast Ethernet for the small and medium business (SMD) market. A low-power octal PHY chip, the BCM54980, was also shown.

Cavium Networks:
Known for their Nitrox security processors, Cavium introduced their single and Dual-Core Octeon MIPS64 processors. These CN31XX chips have from one to 16 MIPS cores on a single chip, along with networking I/Os and related security and applications hardware acceleration. They give unprecedented throughput and programmability for Layer 2 through 7 processing in the most advanced networks. The Octeon products are also available in board as well a chip form.

A name you ordinarily associate with networking, Curtiss-Wright showed their GLX4000, the industry's highest density modular physical layer switch. It is in an 8U chassis that can accommodate up to six 48-port interfaces for a total of 288-ports. It can support SFP or Firewire (IEEE 1394) at speeds up to 4.25 Gb/s.

Marvel presented a set of Ethernet packet processor solutions for the SMB market. These are the Prestera 98DX249 and 98DX269 SceureSmartStackable produces. These devices provide for hardware stacking at speeds of 2, 5 and 10 Gb/s. Another new product was the Prestera 98DX2x5 family of packet processors for secure enterprise and metro Ethernet markets. Marvell was also showing their "draft-n" compliant 802.11n WLAN chip set.

The vertical cavity surface emitting laser (VCSEL) company is quietly continuing its growth and success by focusing on 10 Gb/s products. They provide laser transceivers in a variety of form factors. For 10 Gb/s Ethernet, they have XENPAK, XFP and X2 modules. They also offer 850 and 1310 nm VCSEL modules for 10GE SFP+ over multimode fiber and 10GE long reach SFP+ modules over single mode fibers, and have SFP modules for 1 to 4 Gb/s Fibre Channel use.

Portland, Oregon-based VeriWave showed their WaveTest 90 and WaveTest 20 systems for testing wireless LAN APs. They offer a wide range of performance analysis tools to help WLAN infrastructure equipment manufacturers who need to accurately analyze the performance of their AP products. They are now introducing WLAN benchmark performance tests based on the IEEE 802.11.2 draft standard. VeriWave is also offering a mobility and roaming test for wireless LANs. The system delivers huge savings in time and money in testing that not only verifies performance, but also allows for accurate comparisons of systems when evaluating alternatives.

Vitesse Semiconductor:
Vitesse Semiconductor continues its lead in creating the most power efficient Ethernet PHY chips on the planet. They announced that they had hit the 600 mW-level with their VSC8601 and VSC8641, but did a demo of the 400 mW version at the show.

A new WLAN equipment supplier, Xirrus had one of the most interesting products at the show-the XS-3900 Wireless LAN Array. This access point can contain up to sixteen 802.11a/b/g radios, with directional gain antennas for creating sectorized coverage of a hot spot area. The AP also contains a switch and a common MAC that lets this AP perform multiple duties. It maximizes bandwidth, rate, and range. And multiple radios can be bonded to give high-speed back haul. Even mesh is a possibility. The directional antennas let the user manage capacity and coverage. Check this one out.

One final thing I noticed at the show, that I did not pay too much attention to before, was the free space optical wireless systems. These use infrared beams at 785 or 850 nm to transmit serial data over distances up to 2 km at rates from about 155 Mb/s to 1.25 Gb/s. Those showing such systems were Canon and Lightpointe. Another system from Omnilux uses multiple beams to mesh the access points. With such devices available, who needs short-range fiber links anyway?

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