Building Networks on the Fly – IEEE Spectrum

By the early 1990s, IBM and Hewlett-Packard, as well as Canon, Hitachi, Ricoh, and other large makers of office equipment, had realized that customers expanding their networks with new copiers and other components almost always got bogged down.

The problem was one of compatibility. Every time a company wanted to attach new equipment to a network, it had to add software to every network node that might ever access the additions. Worse yet, the system was highly unlikely to be homogeneous, as the network devices, new or old, were highly unlikely to be the products of a single manufacturer. So in 1995 U.S. and Japanese companies formed the Salutation Consortium to come up with a solution.

As the consortium members saw it, the solution had two parts: it called for a uniform way of labeling devices digitally with descriptions of their capabilities, plus a single common method of sharing that information. To illustrate, the need was for a printer, say, to be equipped to describe its capabilities to any suitably equipped computer or other network element that might come calling.

Fortunately, industry groups such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) were already working on the first element–developing standard data formats for different types of equipment. For instance, an IETF standard, Request-for-Comment (RFC) 1759, released in 1995, provides a standard way of describing printer capabilities. Typically, printers can accept different sizes of paper from different input bins, print in different colors, sort and collate, and create printing logs. RFC 1759 describes how this information, along with printer status (such as “in use” or “warming up”) should be encoded and stored in a file called the Printer MIB (management information base) table.

How to find and “interview” the printer, though, was up to the consortium. Success depended on cooperation among makers of computers, printers, and other office equipment, who in many cases were also competitors. The formation of the Salutation Consortium overcame that obstacle, creating an open arena in which the work done could be freely shared by all.

Since that time, the idea of automating the way networks are put together has fired the information technology industry’s imagination. The Bluetooth Special Interest Group, formed in February 1998 by Ericsson, IBM, Intel, Nokia, and Toshiba, and the Jini organization–started in July of the same year by Sun Microsystems Inc., Palo Alto, Calif.–are among those that have independently tried to create ways to set up networks on the fly. Their initial releases, which were also announced in 1998, have tackled the problem from different perspectives.

The Bluetooth group has worked on defining requirements for wireless networks from the bottom up. Its specification establishes a radio connection between two devices and then covers everything up to the point where the connection is made and applications can be started.

As the specification was originally defined, a computer equipped with a wireless Bluetooth module for sending e-mail to a Bluetooth-enabled phone must first find the phone. It sends out a signal asking any other Bluetooth device in the vicinity to respond, whereupon the phone thus found and the computer use frequency-hopping to establish a secure means of communicating.

how discovery protocols stack up

Click on image to enlarge.

That done, the devices still have to discover each other’s capabilities. To this end, Bluetooth defines a service discovery protocol, which helps the computer and phone set up a network on the fly. The ad hoc network exists only as long as the computer and phone are close enough to each other and in need of each other’s services [see “Bluetooth’s slow dawn,” IEEE Spectrum, November 2000, p. 61­65].

A computer that uses Sun Microsystems’ Jini protocol enhances Java applications, enabling it also to set up an ad hoc network with a printer, say, automatically. The protocol does not specify how the computer and the printer are connected to the network, possibly by Ethernet or even by a radio signal. What it spells out are how the two devices should negotiate a “contract” for services, how long they should stay connected, and where to find the software needed to perform printing operations. As part of that process, Jini includes a discovery protocol [see “Who’s Who in Discovery“] that enables devices to find out about each other.

Even though Jini and Bluetooth both have a discovery protocol, the two protocols are incompatible. A Jini device cannot communicate with a phone that uses only the Bluetooth service discovery protocol. However, Salutation, the discovery protocol developed by the Salutation Consortium, may turn out to be the bridge between Bluetooth and Jini devices, as well as to other platforms [see table, above]. Were the devices to use the same protocol, they would at least be able to determine the capabilities of the other devices in the network. What’s more, because the same software could be used with a Java- or Bluetooth-enabled device, or one using some other network protocol, Salutation may be the most cost-effective way to develop applications for any networked device [<a href="" rel="lightbox" title="Networking Diversity: Infinite variety–that hardly exaggerates the network device types that need to work together. All need a common means for discovering which other network resources are available and can provide needed services. For the home, manufacturers are working together on the home audio-video interoperability network to link everything from personal digital assistants (PDAs) to camcorders under the user's remote control [left]. A home network controller [not shown] would be in charge, and wirelessly communicate with hand-held devices that use the Bluetooth protocol.
A home private branch exchange (PBX) or other telecommunications system will connect the home net to the Internet [center], so that users will be able to communicate between home and office [right] or cell phone when they are traveling [lower left]. Establishing these connections will involve many different networks, such as corporate local-area networks employing Jini software [right]. © 2001 IEEE Spectrum magazine”>see figure].

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