The shape of the home network of the future became clearer at the recent Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, and it will look, in general, like the enterprise network of the present.
For instance, Wi-Fi has dominated the home for years. But the expected surge in high-bandwidth streaming media, such as high-definition TV, will mean the future home network will also need wired networking, many believe.
"We believe the networked home will be a hybrid with wired and wireless," says Trevor Bratton, a spokesperson at networking vendor Linksys, a division of Cisco.
Similarly, network-based storage and servers, long staples in corporations, will be needed to store and manage media in the home, if the vision of industry heavyweights like Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Cisco prove true. They stress, however, that there will be at least one key difference between home and work: These media-focused devices won't require technical knowledge to use.
Still, the home network of the future shown and discussed on the floor of CES recently will be strikingly familiar to IT managers.
Wireless still key
While corporations are always reluctant to use non-standardised equipment, routers and other Wi-Fi gear based on the 802.11n draft spec are becoming the de facto standard for the home.
That's because, even though the ratification schedule for 802.11n remains hazy, its Ethernet-like speed and quality of service are essential for streaming media through the home. Adoption of the "n" spec is happening, though, only after a shaky start more than a year ago when draft-N equipment showed very little interoperability.
At least one vendor places the blame for those initial problems on over-zealousness by chip makers when draft-N equipment first appeared.
"In the beginning, the chip set manufacturers were all trying to differentiate themselves," says Philip Pyo, product deliver marketing manager at Netgear, which is best known for its Wi-Fi networking gear. "Now, they're working together."
Companies on the CES show floor claimed that interoperability is not a problem now and, in any case, this summer the Wi-Fi Alliance, the trade group of Wi-Fi vendors, is expected to start certifying equipment based on the draft standard. While some believe certifying non-standardised equipment may seem like an oxymoron, the industry obviously feels it is essential, given the potential growth of home networking used for media dissemination.
As a result, a flood of new draft-802.11n equipment from all major vendors and many smaller ones was shown at CES. And to handle the bandwidth demands that many expect in the media-centric home, much of the new equipment has gigabit-class capabilities.
In the wall
While wireless networking will remain essential, home users who are interested in media will also be adding wired networking, companies at CES predicted. However, unlike the enterprise, that wired networking won't be Ethernet. Rather, it will be networking that uses in-wall electrical wiring, typically using the recently updated HomePlug specification, which provides theoretical network speeds as high as 200Mbit/s.
Introduced several years ago, HomePlug was swamped by Wi-Fi. But even the most ardent Wi-Fi advocates are coming to believe that in-wall wiring will play an important role in the home because of shortcomings of wireless networking. Every major vendor of Wi-Fi equipment for the home and small office -- such as Linksys, Netgear and D-Link -- was showing HomePlug or equivalent equipment.
"Wireless is good for certain things," says Nancy Robbins, marketing communications manager at Intellon, which spearheaded the HomePlug standard and provides HomePlug technology to other vendors. "But all kinds of things like jitter and latency can cause problems with wireless and media. HomePlug doesn't just have better quality of service - it also has better ease of use."
She noted that many media equipment companies agree. For example, she says, Sharp's 108-inch LCD TV, which made quite a splash at the show, doesn't support Wi-Fi. Rather, because of the potential shortcomings of wireless, Sharp chose to only support HomePlug networks for its behemoth.
Vendors known for their Wi-Fi equipment, such as Netgear, agree.
"Powerline has its best place right around the home entertainment centre," says Netgear's Pyo. "It reaches the reliability of a plain Ethernet network."
NAS for the home
Media files are large, so network-attached storage (NAS) is also expected to play a significant role in the home network of the future. As a result, D-Link, Netgear and Linksys, not to mention heavyweights in the field such as Seagate and HP, were all showing off home network-storage products at CES.
The most ambitious storage-related announcement at CES, however, came from Microsoft, which introduced its home storage server software. HP has already implemented that software in its home storage server. The goal, according to a Microsoft booth person, is to provide RAID-like storage capabilities without the complexities of RAID. Rather, the interface Microsoft and HP were showing was simple enough for the most non-technical users, with software that supports not just aggregation of media from a variety of sources, but also network basics such as data backup.
NAS devices for the home have been around for a couple of years, but the clear expectation at CES was that sales will start to climb rapidly as homeowners buy into the vision of the media-centric home.
Perhaps the most important piece of the home network puzzle will be servers that collect media from multiple sources, such as other networked computers, and from online and make that media readily available via a simple on-screen interface.
Need proof that many industry heavyweights expect media servers to take off? Consider that HP built media server capabilities into its new MediaSmart flat-panel TVs. And Cisco, which recently announced it planned to get into the home entertainment business, was showing its media server behind closed doors.
HP's MediaSmart flat-panel TVs with built-in intelligence drew big crowds. The system, which was connected to HP's network-storage device powered by Microsoft's new software, featured a pleasant, remote control-friendly interface for acquiring media from multiple sources, storing it, retrieving it and playing it. Perhaps the best way of describing the intelligence built into MediaSmart is that it's like TiVo on steroids.
However, no media server was the topic of more discussion at CES than the one Apple introduced at Macworld in San Francisco: Apple TV. Apple has made no secret of its desire to dominate the living room media experience the same way its iPod media players control the portable media scene.
Given the complex needs of the future home network, it's probably no coincidence that it's starting to resemble enterprise networks. That's because some of the issues that must be solved are the same: High bandwidth requirements, heavy-duty storage needs and the ability to manage large amounts of data. And those complex requirements must be handled in a way that non-technical users can manage.
That means that NAS, servers, and a combination of wireless and wired networking are coming home.