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Summary:

There are obvious opportunities stemming from Wi-Fi Direct and Apple’s Airplay technologies, but how does one look beyond point solutions and hardware products to find the larger opportunity? The answer came to me during a conversation with Urs Hoelzle, Google’s SVP of engineering at Google.

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Ever since Sanjit Biswas, founder and CEO of Wi-Fi gear maker Meraki shared with me his vision that we are only going to see more Wi-Fi enabled devices in the home, I’ve been wondering how it translates into opportunities, especially for startups.

Among these opportunities could be a very simple cloud-based services for novices to manage and better utilize their home networks. With new developments in networking technology, it’s not that hard to imagine such a service, which would act like a butler for your in-home networking needs.

There are obvious opportunities stemming from Wi-Fi Direct and Apple’s Airplay technologies, but how does one look beyond point solutions and hardware products to find the larger opportunity? The answer came to me during a conversation with Urs Hoelzle, Google’s SVP of engineering at Google.

We were discussing the formation of the Open Networking Foundation and how it was going to help take the radical new technology, Open Flow, from academia to the commercial markets. Open Flow is like the BIOS inside a PC and makes networking gear more programmable. It helps network elements adapt more to the needs of end users who, at present ,are stuck in a one-size-fits-all-world. With Open Flow ,the networking is separated from the device itself and taken to the cloud.

During our conversation, I asked Hoelzle if we could see Open Flow in our home networking gear and Wi-Fi devices. While he didn’t think that would happen in the near future, it was very likely to happen at some point. Nick McKeown, a professor at Stanford University and one of the key forces behind the Open Flow movement, believes Open Flow could one day become the underpinning of cloud-based home networking.

McKeown pointed out that enterprise wireless hardware providers are already using software-defined networking and have created cloud-based networking tools to better manage the corporate networks. Meraki, for instance, might build great hardware, but in the end, it’s web-based management of devices and the network is what makes it an attractive proposition.

It’s pretty clear that as more and more devices are added to our home networks, the complexity of our in-home networks is going to increase. Our home Wi-Fi networks of tomorrow are going to look very much like large campus networks look today — multiple clients hitting the network from multiple places, at multiple times. The problem is that most consumers aren’t equipped to manage these myriad devices. If the Wi-Fi network isn’t working, more than likely many would simply return the hardware and try a new device.

In the recent past, we’ve seen the technology industry come up with new standards such as DLNA to make various consumer (and computing) devices work together. While a lot of progress has been made, it’s still a pretty difficult road to navigate. Apple has its own version — Bonjour — and it works nicely between Apple and Apple-approved gear, but even that isn’t enough to solve the problems we’re likely to face in the near future. Pure Home Networks, a company that was acquired by Cisco Systems in 2008 for $120 million, tried to build smart home networks by embedding its software based on (Home Networking Administration Protocol) HNAP protocol into different connected home devices. That hasn’t been a big success.

What we need is a simple-to-use, web-based service, which would allow us to see if our iPads are connecting to the network for example, or if our connected televisions have enough bandwidth and the new sensors we just got are configured to tap into the network. The emergence of newer Wi-Fi based technologies, such as the Wi-Fi Direct (for providing direct, peer-to-peer connection between two or more Wi-Fi devices) and Airplay, are only going to add complexity to home networks, so a cloud-based service could make it all work seamlessly.

The beauty of Open Flow is that it obviates the need to embed any special protocol into connected home devices. You can build really dumb Wi-Fi routers and abstract the management of the home Wi-Fi into a simple-to-use, web-based service. Perhaps that would stop Mom calling you with tech support questions.

PS: If you have any thoughts about this idea or are currently working on a new service, do let me know. Drop me an email at omsays@gigaom.com.

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  1. Akin to McNealy’s “the network is the computer”? Good idea. Turning any appliance into a networked appliance would be far easier and cheaper (on the appliance side) if most of the logic was embedded on the server side. I have always thought that something like a MIDI protocol for home appliance devices would be pretty cool. Make the interface 802.11x and you have fundamental flexible device control capabilities. But, keeping the actual appliance functions dumb to network control is definitely a smart way to go, i think. Is that the sort of thing you have in mind, Om?

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  2. Om,
    Good article, I was just thinking about that last night when looking at ways to configure my 2 iphones, ipad, work laptop, imac, wireless printer, potentially 2-3 wireless speakers & connected TV. There are specific solutions with more hardware needed but you need to be able to expand to all types of data & content. Cloud based seems like a great idea. I haven’t been on the site in awhile & kind of funny you wrote this article. Thanks, forgot how much I loved this site.

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  3. Won’t happen with the way home and small business routers are being designed and developed these days. It’s a race to the bottom, margins are razor thin. Most vendors just use whatever linux distro they get from the chip vendor and add their web interface. No heavy duty development going on in this area. There is Open-wrt but is no android. Also, customers just configure their home router once and forget. I’ve been working on routers for a number of years, adding features I want but it’s tough to get folks excited by a home router. It also means that this area may be ripe for a change.

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  4. “What we need is a simple-to-use, web-based service,” – Simple to use, yes. Web-based – why in the world? What does it bring vs. few cents more expensive router with built in intelligence to do the same… On the opposite side: risks of such web-based service are innumerable. As all web technologies it will never be safe. Just by its introduction you’d be opening home network to easy attacks while it was kept relatively safe in recent years by NAT routers and firewalls. Worst hit – ordinary people who this system is supposed to “help” and who should be target customers. Problem is marketers may be able to sell them this stuff…
    What we need is unified and standardized service configuration across manufacturers, sadly very unlikely.
    Enough with “cloud-based” solutions. Conditions were never favorable to it (expensive and weak local computing power and local storage plus extremely good networking speed and quality of service are almost polar opposite of what we do have now). Hardware and networking capabilities of modern times suggest advance in “personal cloud”: services and data kept locally and provided out to global network, mostly to particular individual or small groups. That can be made reasonably secure and efficient as long as one has limited audience in mind, not the whole ‘net.

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    1. dusanmal,

      While you sound of experience, I think you just dont quite get the concept right. As in a Meraki enterprise cloud, the joy is in the consolidated and streamlined management of the network. Features and updates are not even an organization’s problem anymore. The cloud updates, adds a feature, and the global client(s) have access instantly. In this scenario, one can manage and scale thousands of networks from the cloud with ease.
      For the home network, I can definitely see this as being advantageous. You buy the “cloud router” from your local shop and just plug it in. The vendor charges some nominal service fee (or have it built into the up front router cost) and you get cloud management service. This means the vendor is no longer doing software version updates for 65 different versions of hardware (wrt-54G for example.. which has all kinds of hardware differences). The cloud vendor says “we should add this feature”, they code it once in the cloud, and poof, magic, everyone on planet earth using their product has the new feature.
      This does NOT expose one’s home network to easy attacks, it in fact changes nothing. The hardware remains the hardware, a SPI firewall with NAT / PAT sits at the home edge. Its the same. The only weakness in cloud management is that your security exists behind a username and password in a cloud. Im hoping to see two factor (or at least two layer) authentication for the cloud controller access.

      If you are looking at the cloud saying “as if” then you are clearly “clouded”. This is not a possibility but rather a reality. As a corporate provider, I see customers and IT SE’s all pondering the viability and usefulness of the cloud, while people 18 and younger already live there. Youth have an expectation of having their “everything, anytime”.
      I suppose you would state that “salesforce.com” is a failure and does not work right? To the contrary, it the evolution of IT as we know it.

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  5. The trouble with this is all the capping ISPs in the US and Canada (as well as the UK and Australia, and plenty of other places) — even Comcast’s “generous” 250GB per month could be hit pretty easily if we start storing all our stuff in a cloud service and actually expect to make *use* of it on a regular basis. Sure, a photo gallery wouldn’t likely hit the monthly cap, but somebody who records lots of videos for YouTube and wants to archive them in the cloud would be in trouble quickly (my dinky little high-def camcorder produces 1080i videos that slurp up a hundred megabytes per minute).

    It’s a fantastic technological idea, don’t get me wrong. It just seems like the ISPs aren’t going to let it really take off unless they can get a slice of the pie.

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    1. Hey William,

      Pardon my response, but you are confusing cloud storage with cloud management. The hype around cloud has everyone thinking they will do “everything” in the cloud. That’s an eventuality, but not yet a reality because of reasons you highlight.

      The cloud is moving at a very fast pace, but some vendors have done some things that are absolutely market changing (challenging) things, with a very minuscule bandwidth cost.

      In the example here, instead of providing a local web based http(s) GUI to every router / firewall (that requires firmware updates etc), you simply provide the hardware and manage it from a cloud interface. This is not VDI in the cloud for every home user, its step 1 in a long dance towards the cloud. Bandwidth concerns for me opening http(s)://manage.myrouter@home.com and forwarding a port, are non-existent. I burn more bits looking for a torrent, let alone downloading it.

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      1. “Cloud management” of the CPE. This is yet another example of something that already exists and now people are trying to making it cool by adding the keyword cloud to it. This “cloud management” of the CPE already exists as SP managed services where SPs provide some sort of web interface to the customer to perform configuration and in the background they use a protocol like TR-069 or just CLI over SSH to push the config to the router. Of course since SPs are doing it that can’t be cool. If some brand new startup does it everybody talks about it.

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