Home Sweet Home Networks

While teaching an introductory class on Internet technology, I yield to a moment of enthusiasm and weakness. I suggest that dishwashers, televisions, and burglar alarms will soon be connected to the Internet. My students quickly divide into two groups: those packing up their notebooks because their instructor has gone over the edge again and those who aren’t packing up because they are laughing too hard to start.

For many of us, the thought of an Internet-connected home network seems odd. Isn't it enough to have a DSL or cable modem connection to our laptop or home computer? Getting the rest of the house connected doesn’t seem like it would add any value. In fact, connecting the toaster and the refrigerator together in a home network is absurd at first blush. But if those pesky appliances were connected to the Internet, they could be maintained without a house call from a repair technician.

It is also possible that the utility company might reduce my monthly electric bill if I agree to use energy saving appliances that could be directly addressed on the Internet. In my part of the country the energy utility has a brute force program in place: if you allow them complete control over your air conditioner they give you a slightly lower energy rate in the summer. What if they could achieve the energy savings goals by prioritizing appliances during the day and using the Internet to selectively "turn down" less important appliances?

I can also imagine home patient care that provides micro Web site tracking of blood pressure, temperature, and other vital signs. Rather than taking up valuable bed space at a hospital, a patient could remain comfortable at home while still being monitored by health professionals.

These ideas aren’t crazy, but they would change the way we connect homes to the Internet. That change is likely to have an impact on the enterprise as well.

If this approach is to work, I don’t want individual connections for each of the devices in my house. Instead, the home network must share a common backbone that is easy to connect and fulfills the true meaning of plug-and-play. Crucial to that goal is the development of industry standards that vendors can use to deploy home-based services, regardless of whether the vendor is Microsoft, Cisco, Amana, or Frigidaire.

One consortium committed to building these standards is the Open Services Gateway Initiative (OSGi). OSGi is a collection of more than 30 companies committed to developing standards for a gateway linking home networks and appliances to the Internet. The gateway OSGi envisions would act as a separator between the home’s network and the Internet at large. If the gateway could be delivered as a zero administration networking switch, all the devices in the home could connect together and share a single attachment to services and networks outside the home.

Connecting a variety of computers together in a local area network is hard enough, how can a variety of electronic appliances and devices be connected? The OSGi proposes to use Java clients, JINI, and Java servers as a way to avoid the need for platform specific standards. This avoids any requirement for a particular operating system.

Right now there are many residential networking initiatives, including HomeAPI, HomePNA, Cebus, and HAVi. The OSGi Java-based gateway could coexist with many of these residential standards if participating vendors can achieve critical mass in the marketplace. Notably absent from the OSGi initiative is Microsoft. While Microsoft has a record of pursuing interoperability when it suits them, the OSGi’s support for vendor-neutral connections must rankle those trying to establish Windows CE as the infrastructure of choice for embedded devices.

For the enterprise network, the OSGi initiative -- if it can succeed -- means that remote users and telecommuters will be able to connect to the corporate network through a standard secure interface. The gateway will negotiate the secure tunnel between the home network and corporate firewall. The result will be far fewer headaches for network administrators.

The OSGi initiative is one among many that propose to change the way services and connections are brought into the home. Soon Internet connected appliances won’t seem so strange -- it will be strange that we thought them odd in the first place. --Mark McFadden is a consultant and is communications director for the Commercial Internet eXchange (Washington). Contact him at mcfadden@cix.org.