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« Sputnik's Latest Satellite | Main | News for 5/8/2002 »

May 7, 2002

Discovery: At a Secluded Rendezvous...

Apple's preview of its upcoming OS X 10.2 Jaguar release included a technology the company is calling Rendezvous: the automatic discovery (search and recognition) of TCP/IP devices over Ethernet, FireWire, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.

Alan Reiter remarks on it a bit and wonders what I think. My opinion: a whole new world of discovery awaits us.

Apple wasn't unique in building discovery into its AppleTalk protocol way back when. AppleTalk devices broadcast little hi, how-are-you messages all the time, and other devices can use these messages to build lists of network resources, categorized by type. By contrast, Ethernet networks are chatty, too, but more reserved: it's easy to find out which IP addresses are assigned to which MAC (Media Access Control or unique Ethernet) addresses on a network, but it's not so easy to figure out what services are available behind the curtain.

Lexmark included a printer discovery package as part of the Windows drivers and programs that came with my Optra M412N. The discovery package would scan the local subnet and find out which devices were Lexmark printers and make them available for use. Handy, certainly.

Bluetooth already has a fairly high-level discovery process. The whole point of Bluetooth is to allow opportunistic (let's not say parasitic) ad hoc use: devices find each other and talk to each other. The Bluetooth technology preview that I have from Apple scans constantly for nearby Bluetooth devices, including phones, so it can autoconfigure a connection or make me aware of the new devices, just like it does when I plug in a new USB device.

Apple's proposal, thus, is trying to bring to networked devices an entirely new layer of support that's more akin to directly connected peripherals, like hard drives and USB or parallel printers. It wants you, as a user, to not have to make decisions about how to connect to things as they become available. Rather, the system recognizes and makes those resources available, and you choose how or if you want to interact with them.

Apple includes FireWire alongside the wired and wireless network media, because FireWire is poised to enter a new age shortly. FireWire will migrate from a pure hard drive/bus substitute into a real high-speed short-range network method using less expensive cabling and hitting speeds of 1.6 Gbps.

The practical advantage of Rendezvous is an abundance of resources and a reduction in the time it takes to connect to what's available. (System administrators will probably love it, too, as it will be easier to monitor when resources stop working.) Rendezvous makes it practical to offer a printer service in a Net cafe, or a pool of printers in the enterprise, without requiring that each user's machine be tediously and individually configured to work with that device.

When you start building applications on Rendezvous, you can see the larger potential: users can make requests for specific operations that can be pooled and divvied out as devices appear or come available. Right now, outside of print spooling, machines also rely on and require the presence of networked devices and FireWire equipment before they can be used. Rendezvous should allow applications that can use discovery to create routine (think crontab jobs) or specific requests.

"When you find a printer that can handle color, print this job." "When you reach a network that has over 1 Mbps capacity, send this file." "Retrieve my email if there's 56 Kbps or more, but only subjects."

A machine might communicate over Ethernet instead of 802.11a, or split packets between them. A FireWire device might contain a video clip which, when the device is connected to a computer, is immediately and automatically copied over a network to a queued set of requests from multiple people for the clip.

Discovery turns resources into immediate push, not tedious pull. It allows queued pull operations, freeing users from waiting and requesting. Discovery shifts the burden from a human being acting as a device (click, check, login, click, click, refresh) into a system that handles it for them.

None of this requires science fiction. It only requires the expectation that your computer can fumble in the dark and put its key in the lock instead of requiring you to hold a bright flashlight and guide it in its course.

News for 5/7/2002

Intel to ship dual 802.11a/b hub within a month: At Network+Interop, Intel announced an Atheros-based access point that can offer both 802.11a and 802.11b service. The company also said they have developed their own chipset for future devices. (At the same event, they showed 10 Gbps Ethernet, and announced $59 One Gbps adapters!) Ken Haase of Proxim told me just the other day, however, that system designs make it tricky to simply replace Wi-Fi APs with dual-band devices. Between density and other requirements, more planning may be needed. More from Ken in the next day or so.

Proxim's big 802.11a day: Proxim today made several 802.11a-related announcements. First, the company became the first to sell 802.11a in the United Kingdom. Second, Proxim is shipping the first 802.11a PCI card. Third, they're the first to introduce 802.1x support for 802.11a. In one of the press releases, they also note the countries in which they're currently selling 802.11a gear: United States, Canada, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Philippines and Mexico. An interesting list that they expect to get longer as approval continues to be added thoughout Europe.

Fry and Wi-Fi: offering me a chance to use the same rhyme twice, McDonalds of Japan and giant investment firm Softbank are discussing installing up to 4,000 hot spots in the restaurant's Japanese outlets. Some find McDonalds emblematic of American cultural and economic hegemony, while others see it as a concrete example of the olio-centric destruction of native habitat, public health, and the atmosphere. I just like the fries.

Generic Wi-Fi card drivers for Mac OS 8 and 9: these drivers should unleash the full cheapness of Wi-Fi PC Cards on Mac owners with pre-AirPort equipped laptops, or those that want to bypass the $100 modified Orinoco card. The company lists compatible and probably compatible cards. The driver is $14.95 during beta, $19.95 on release. Some of the cards they list should be available for less than $50 on eBay or possibly even in new condition at a clearance site. [via Raines Cohen on the BAWUG Wireless list]