If you're like most personal computer owners, you've got a file problem. Huge files are piling up on your hard drive. They're slowing your microprocessor and clogging your data pipes, like plaque in a fat man's arteries.
Many home computer owners don't yet recognize it, but experts say ominous signs are out there. Videos and digital photos are packing more bits than ever — computer users are adding extra hard drives; microprocessors are straining. Eventually, when PCs go belly-up, data is lost.
“Consumers don't necessarily think in terms of safety and redundancy,” says Nikolay Guenov, manager of the Home Office Consumer Marketing Team for Freescale Semiconductor. “But once they spend the time and money to create content, they should.”
That's why virtually every semiconductor maker, electronics manufacturer and major software seller is now espousing a vision of home networking. In the vision, there's a box — network attached storage, it's called — that backs up the photos, videos, music files and word-processing documents, then distributes them inside and outside the home. Homeowners need it, they say, but today most are incapable of doing their own networking.
That's where electronics industry engineers are stepping in. They're trying to make it easier for the digitally-challenged to back up their domains.
“There are people — over a million of them — who are already doing their own home networking and network-attached storage,” says Joel Sider, a senior product manager for Microsoft Corp. “But today, most people can't do it.”
If electronics and software manufacturers have their way, however, that's going to change. At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in January, Microsoft Corp. rolled out the Windows Home Server, in essence, a file server that backs up PCs on a home network. Microsoft is already teaming with Hewlett-Packard, AMD Semiconductor, Inventec Corp. and Quanta Computer Inc., as well as untold others, on hardware development for the server. Similarly, Freescale announced it is teaming with Axentra on a “digital media platform” called HipServ. Intel Corp., meanwhile, has taken the concept a step further by unveiling its new Viiv, a PC that enables users to link home computers to high-definition (HD) TVs, digital video recorders (DVRs), set-top boxes and other home devices. In Intel's vision, users will download television shows to a media server located within Viiv, then play back the shows through the TV at a later date.
The inherent challenge to such grand visions is to endow the systems with sufficient performance and, more importantly, give them interoperability, so families looking for photos don't end up fumbling with incompatibilities.
“We all would like to have devices in the home that can talk to each other and share information with minimum configuration on the consumer's part,” Guenov says. “That's the noble objective.”
Up for Grabs
Moreover, electronics manufacturers see a vast need for that “noble objective,” and they've got the numbers to prove it. According to Microsoft, about 35 million households use a broadband Internet connection, 34 million have more than one PC in the home and about 19 million are employing a local area network connection. What's more, they say, 182 billion digital photos were taken in 2005 alone, and that volume is expected to grow to almost a half-trillion by 2009.
With that in mind, some form of home storage is expected to be seen as a necessity for many in the near future. How to accomplish that in a way that's simple, however, is up for grabs.
Intel plans to do it by subscribing to Digital Living Network Alliance (DLNA), a group of consumer electronics, semiconductor and software companies developing industry standards for device interoperability. The alliance — which includes the likes of Intel, Microsoft, Samsung, Matsushita, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Philips, Motorola and Nokia — is creating a standard set of protocols for sharing of files, such as music. It also specifies details that enable electronic devices to find, recognize, and communicate with one another.
“It lays the foundation for true interoperability,” says Merlin Kister, director of consumer PC product marketing for Intel's Digital Home Group. “Prior to DLNA, CE (consumer electronics) companies would make their products communicate with each other, only within their particular brand.”
Intel has integrated DLNA into its media server, which is part of its Viiv PC. The company also says it has used DLNA as a baseline and added another layer of functionality, in hopes of providing ease-of-use that extends beyond DLNA. When working with music files, for example, Intel has added transcoding capabilities to Viiv. Transcoding enables it to take an AC-3 (audio compression 3) file and convert it to an LPCM (linear pulse code modulation) file, which is employed in DLNA-based systems. It can also access remote services, as well as remote content. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show, Intel engineers showed how Viiv could be used to go to an NBC TV server, where it downloaded the show, “Heroes,” and then stored it in the media server for later viewing.
“Through the TV, you have access to services available on the Internet,” Kister says.
Still, DLNA is only one of many standards available for home networking. Others include: The High Definition Audio-Video Network Alliance (HANA), which offers guidelines to link TVs, digital recorders and storage devices over an IEEE 1394 cable; Multimedia over Coax Alliance (MoCA); Home Phoneline Networking Alliance (HPNA); and the HomePlug Powerline Alliance; as well as the Universal Plug And Play Forum (UPnP Forum), among many, many more.
Engineers at Freescale say their efforts in interoperability have also been aided by implementation of IEEE 1588, a standard for clock synchronization in measurement and control systems.
“To run smoothly, you need a reliable method of time synchronization,” says Sunil Kaul, product manager for PowerQuicc products at Freescale Semiconductor. Kaul adds that standards such as IEEE 1588, which is often used in factory automation, conveyor systems, and medical instrumentation, provides a solution for home networks with high numbers of nodes.
Most industry engineers agree home networking would benefit from a convergence of standards, but that such a convergence will take time.
“It's not easy to reach standard guidelines and agreements between a large number of OEMs, semiconductor companies and software companies,” Guenov explains. “All these industry forums are trying to steer the industry toward interoperability and ease of use in different ways.”
High Performance Needed
Even if home networking doesn't involve integration of HDTVs and DVRs, engineers will face challenges in implementing it for those with limited technical capabilities.
Microsoft's Windows Home Server does it by employing a simple protocol called Server Message Block (SMB), which enables it to store and retrieve files, as well as back up files, from Windows- and non-Windows-based machines. “If you have photos or video or music that you want to stream to an Xbox, you can do that very easily,” says Sider of Microsoft.
Similarly, Axentra's HipServ digital media platform offers solutions that aggregate digital content, ranging from video-on-demand to digital photos, in a network-attached storage configuration. The systems, which include two- and four-drive solutions, provide up to 4 Terabytes of storage and offer it in a way that Axentra engineers say is easy to use.
Ease-of-use is only part of the battle. From a design engineering perspective, one of the key challenges is also processor performance. To run software applications, along with security protocols and network protocols, requires processing power.
“Some companies do it by throwing a lot of megahertz at the problem, some steer more toward hardware accelerators aimed at certain parts of the problem,” says Guenov of Freescale.
Freescale, in its efforts with Axentra, employed co-processors. The co-processors, integrated into Freescale's MPC8313 PowerQuicc processors, handle security protocols, thus offloading much of the computing from the main processor. Intel, meanwhile, is attacking the problem with multiple cores. With the Core 2 Duo, Intel uses dual processors, which can stream three music files to three rooms, along with a standard video stream in another room, and a PC-based computer game stream in yet another. Its Core 2 Quad Processor raises the computing level another notch, cranking out a high-definition video stream, a standard-definition video stream, a music stream and a typical PC experience in another locale of the house.
Intel engineers say such computing capabilities may be a luxury now, but they won't be in the near future.
“Consumers are in love with high-definition content,” says Kister of Intel. “Processing capability will have to keep up with consumer demand, not only to play high-end games, but also to stream content – particularly high-definition content – around your home.”
Moreover, many believe the drive toward home networking will also be fueled by the growth in-home video editing. Such videos, which are now appearing in droves on sites such as YouTube.com, are creating a greater need for processing power, network attached storage, and home networks.
“A few years ago, consumers said, 'Why would I need more performance? I'm just doing e-mail,'” says Kister. “But that's changing. They want it to happen now, and we're trying to deliver on that expectation.”