What's Next For IP Networks? Expanding IP networks could help small and midsize businesses collect information, such as energy usage, that would help lower operating costs.

By bMighty.com

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Paul Korzeniowski

IP networks are ubiquitous. They move information in corporations, transmit data to mobile executives, and support telecommuters. One of the last bastions of proprietary networks has been intelligent building systems and devices, but it appears that IP is now ready to break into that area as well.

While networks have been used to automate many types of devices, their prices have been too high for certain markets, such as sensors for lights, temperature controls, actuators, security systems, and appliances. These devices have been largely controlled by proprietary devices and networks, which have been difficult to deploy and support. A consortium of suppliers, the IP for Smart Objects (IPSO) Alliance, wants to change that.

The organization plans to use IP to collect and move information from sensors, actuator-equipped devices, and intelligent appliances. The consortium has been trying to align its work with that done by the Internet Engineering Task Force and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Adding more intelligence to industrial devices would enable vendors to develop sophisticated applications, such as end-to-end utility metering, integrated home and building automation, industrial systems, asset tracking, "smart cities," and "smart grids."

The idea sounds appealing. By going with an IP alternative, companies would be able to move data from industrial networks to corporate networks. Also, maintenance challenges should diminish because network technicians would work with familiar IP-based network management tools rather than be forced to develop new skill sets.

Because of the benefits, the IPSO Alliance has gained support from more than two dozen companies. Noteworthy backers include Arch Rock, Cisco, Emerson, Freescale, SAP, and Sun Microsystems. In addition, end users, such as Duke Energy, have decided to lend a hand to the work.

While it has appealing attributes, the initiative faces some challenges, starting with a couple of alternate networking options, most notably ZigBee. This networking approach is based on the IEEE's 802.14.5 standard and supports wireless networks where a network coordinator (or master device) collects information from up to 65,000 remote devices.

ZigBee was not built to work with computers but instead with simple home and industrial devices, some so simple that they consist of a network connection, a very unsophisticated CPU, and a pair of AAA batteries. ZigBee's focus has been on supporting home area network (HAN) functions, such as controlling light switches, smoke detectors, thermostats, appliances, video and audio systems, sprinkler systems, and security products.

ZigBee has been a standard since 2002 and is now moving toward large deployments while IPSO is still in the development stage. One area where ZigBee has been gaining traction is advanced metering infrastructure. Energy companies have used wireless technology to push intelligence down to the poles outside of customers' homes and businesses; ZigBee has the potential to extend their reach into the home.

The ZigBee Alliance is an ad hoc association of vendors working together to further that goal. The group developed the Smart Energy public application profile, which outlines a common set of energy management functions and protocols, so different suppliers' devices can interoperate. In May, the consortium announced that 19 products had been certified as Smart Energy compliant. Also, Southern California Edison announced plans to deploy Itron ZigBee meters to automate energy management for 5.3 million homes and businesses from 2009 through 2012. Dallas utility Oncor Electric Delivery Co. plans to use Landis+Gyr Holdings smart meters to upgrade service for 7 million customers during the next four years. Partly because of such public support, market research firm WTRS expects shipments of ZigBee meters to increase from 500,000 in 2008 to 19 million in 2012 worldwide.

At this stage, the IPSO Alliance's work is more promise than reality. It hopes to have an interoperability program in place by November. The earliest deployments may start is 2009, and large rollouts could be a couple of years away.

One other standard has been vying for attention. Nokia has pushed its Wibree technology into the HAN marketplace. Wibree is an extension to the popular Bluetooth technology, one tweaked so it requires less energy and is better able to process data intermittently rather than continuously. It too is in an early stage of development.

Now that talk about pushing networking technology down to dumb devices is turning to reality, it raises the question, "Is there anywhere else to drive IP?"

Paul Korzeniowski is a Sudbury, Mass.-based freelance writer who has been writing about networking issues for two decades. His work has appeared in Business 2.0, Entrepreneur, Investor's Business Daily, Newsweek, and InformationWeek.

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