Are Home Networks Destined for Cloud-Based Networking?

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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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