August 6, 2007 5:00 AM PDT
Smarter routers, better Net video
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Forty years later, with millions of people watching YouTube videos daily, making voice calls and swapping files over peer-to-peer networks, the Internet could use an upgrade.
On Monday, Roberts plans to launch a new company, Anagran, that sells next-generation networking equipment that will allow service providers to give the network the performance boost it needs.
"The Internet (infrastructure) has pretty much been the same technology since it was started in 1969," he said. "The Internet wasn't built for video and voice."
Back then, researchers decided the best way to send data over a network was to slice it into different chunks, or packets. That's fine for file sharing, e-mail and even instant messaging. But voice and video, where the packets need to stream uninterrupted, are causing traffic jams on the Internet.
Videos often have interruptions or delay, causing an annoying freeze-frame effect. Conversations can sound choppy with words getting dropped. And hiccups in downloading Web pages and sending e-mail are commonplace.
"I need much faster Internet access. When I ask for something on the Web, I want that to happen in a fraction of a second instead of 10 seconds, Roberts said. "This will let the Web operate in fractional second times."
With broadband connections growing rapidly--over 90 percent penetration in U.S. workplaces and more than 50 percent in homes--the problem is only going to get worse.
If the Internet were like a highway, with cars flowing like packets, the on-ramps would be routers, which determine which path data should take between networks. The new Anagran FR-1000 Flow Routers add the ability to distinguish between packet and streaming data. They offer special "fast lanes" onto the highway via metered on-ramps and onto the highway itself for time-critical data like video and voice, Roberts said.
The routers, which will typically cost between $50,000 and $100,000, have built-in "intelligence" that can reduce delay and packet loss and improve the throughput by eight times, according to Roberts. The routers are three times less expensive than existing routers of similar capability and capacity and use about 80 percent less power, he added.
Because they can distinguish between the different types of traffic, the service providers will be able to offer tiered services at different prices, Roberts said.
The FR-1000 Flow Routers also will allow service providers to offer a sort of busy signal for video and voice so that people could be alerted if the network were too swamped.
"Today packet networks don't know how to give a busy signal the way the traditional voice network does when everyone tries to call their mother on Mother's Day; they are designed to just slow down," he said. "When you slow down video and voice it destroys it."
Improving the reliability of the Internet will mean that governments will be able to use it for emergency services like 911 calls. That could prevent communications outages during disasters, like what happened to the cellular phone service during last week's bridge collapse in Minneapolis, Roberts said. He said he has been in discussion with the federal government since Hurricane Katrina two years ago.
Mobile voice communications are moving to the Internet as well, which will only mean more traffic on the network. "People with laptops can totally destroy all the voice users," Roberts said.
In addition, the routers will help accelerate the adoption of telemedicine, remote surgery and video conferencing, he said.
There is indeed demand in the market for a solution to the voice and video problem and service providers will need to upgrade their networks soon, said David Vorhaus, a research associate at Yankee Group Research. However, he said he wasn't sure if companies would choose to replace their existing packet routers with all new Flow Routers or if they would use a combination of new and old technology.
Because of Roberts' involvement, Anagran, which has received $28 million in funding, has a legitimacy that many start-ups lack, Vorhaus said.
"The fact that it is his company and he does have such credibility out there, I think it's certainly going to generate a lot of interest and discussion," he added. "This is his baby; he's been working on it for years."
In the meantime, Roberts said he marvels at how large the Internet has grown and how it has come to permeate all aspects of society.
"The Internet is vastly bigger than I imagined it would be," he said, adding that he was somewhat shocked when he saw Web addresses start to appear on the sides of commercial trucks.
"The biggest surprise is video," he said. "We couldn't see how it was going to be workable. (The Internet) isn't well-designed for it."
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