Special Coverage Series

Network Computing

Special Coverage Series

Commentary

Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp

Mesh Networking Revival Sparked By NSA PRISM Program

Revelations about NSA data gathering have people looking for a communication system they can control. Is mesh networking the answer?

Suddenly, it seems, mesh networking is back in a big way. First, I heard about Commotion, which is described as an open source communication tool that uses "mobile phones, computers and other wireless devices to create decentralized mesh networks." Then, in the same week, I heard about Project Meshnet, which organizers say is an attempt to create a decentralized network "built on secure protocols for routing traffic over private mesh or public internetworks independent of a central supporting infrastructure.”

It doesn't take much digging to figure out what's triggered this renewed interest in mesh networking: the NSA PRISM program and that whole galaxy of still-unfolding developments that have left a great many people uneasy about their privacy and uncertain about their government. People want a network they can control, and mesh networking sounds like it might be the answer.

More Insights

Webcasts

More >>

White Papers

More >>

Reports

More >>

[Find out what Network Computing readers think about the NSA's data gathering program in NSA PRISM Violates Rights, Fails to Protect, Say Readers]

To be precise, there seems to be a convergence of two technologies in the works: P2P and mesh networking. Both are about decentralizing the way networks work, but each is a different aspect of the problem. P2P is about the protocols and the interactions between the clients; mesh networking is about the clients themselves being the network fabric.

But it's mesh networking that has my attention now, because once again people seem to be asking a key question: If we're all walking around with wireless devices in our pockets, doesn't it make sense to build our network infrastructure on top of the mass of those things, instead of a few towers or access points here and there?

It's a good question, and it goes to the heart of why mesh networks exist in the first place--as a way to flexibly extend networking into places where it isn't always practical to deploy it. Areas that can't be covered by a traditional tower can be covered by a mesh, and there are plenty of existing real-world examples of this.

Firetide, for instance, implements and sells mesh networking technology for municipal and business use. ZigBee uses low-power transceiver technology to set up mesh networking between devices that use very small amounts of data, like traffic management systems or in-home sensors.

The real next-generation mesh networking dream, though, could be expressed as "every cellphone is a cell tower," where the devices we carry with us extend the network automatically.

I actually heard a variety of this proposal in the 1990s, back when cellphones were first taking off with the public but coverage remained spotty (and was largely analog). If your signal to the nearest cell tower was weak, the phone could "piggyback" onto the signal available from phones in the vicinity, and thus boost its signal by proxy, hopscotching data across other phones. Many of the current indie mesh network projects, such as Meshbox and Roofnet, are analogues of this concept.

It's a cool idea. But at the time, it was massively impractical for a whole host of reasons, not least was the bandwidth restrictions that go with any such mesh network.

The other problem is that the underlying reason for wanting such a thing--poor coverage by conventional cell networks--is a lot less of an issue now. Verizon, for example, created live heat maps of coverage in major metropolitan areas, based on the signals it was getting from people's phones. This let Verizon figure out where dead zones of one kind or another existed--possibly because of signals bouncing off of the faces of buildings or the like--and add towers in places that actually helped.

In other words, mesh networking "for the people" may not be the best use for it. It might be easier, and more universally beneficial, to improve the existing towers and access points--and the radio standards used by the phones we carry--than to try and create a decentralized peer-to-peer substitute for the infrastructure we already have.

That said, I can think of plenty of reasons why it would be good to have something like this as a fallback. In the event of a natural disaster, for instance, it would be useful to have some kind of ad hoc mesh networking that kicks in on cellphones as a way for emergency services to send messages or to allow people to confirm they're O.K.

So what about privacy and personal freedom? It's not impossible to envision a future where we have two Internets--the one we all plug into and a second one created via an ad hoc assembly of devotees and hobbyists, all working loosely in unison much the same way the old FidoNet did. My money is on the first on being the most useful, but I wouldn't count out the second one being a force for innovation in its own way.



Related Reading



Network Computing encourages readers to engage in spirited, healthy debate, including taking us to task. However, Network Computing moderates all comments posted to our site, and reserves the right to modify or remove any content that it determines to be derogatory, offensive, inflammatory, vulgar, irrelevant/off-topic, racist or obvious marketing/SPAM. Network Computing further reserves the right to disable the profile of any commenter participating in said activities.

 
Disqus Tips To upload an avatar photo, first complete your Disqus profile. | Please read our commenting policy.
 

Editor's Choice

Research: 2014 State of Server Technology

Research: 2014 State of Server Technology

Buying power and influence are rapidly shifting to service providers. Where does that leave enterprise IT? Not at the cutting edge, thatís for sure: Only 19% are increasing both the number and capability of servers, budgets are level or down for 60% and just 12% are using new micro technology.
Get full survey results now! »

Vendor Turf Wars

Vendor Turf Wars

The enterprise tech market used to be an orderly place, where vendors had clearly defined markets. No more. Driven both by increasing complexity and Wall Street demands for growth, big vendors are duking it out for primacy -- and refusing to work together for IT's benefit. Must we now pick a side, or is neutrality an option?
Get the Digital Issue »

WEBCAST: Software Defined Networking (SDN) First Steps

WEBCAST: Software Defined Networking (SDN) First Steps


Software defined networking encompasses several emerging technologies that bring programmable interfaces to data center networks and promise to make networks more observable and automated, as well as better suited to the specific needs of large virtualized data centers. Attend this webcast to learn the overall concept of SDN and its benefits, describe the different conceptual approaches to SDN, and examine the various technologies, both proprietary and open source, that are emerging.
Register Today »

Related Content

From Our Sponsor

How Data Center Infrastructure Management Software Improves Planning and Cuts Operational Cost

How Data Center Infrastructure Management Software Improves Planning and Cuts Operational Cost

Business executives are challenging their IT staffs to convert data centers from cost centers into producers of business value. Data centers can make a significant impact to the bottom line by enabling the business to respond more quickly to market demands. This paper demonstrates, through a series of examples, how data center infrastructure management software tools can simplify operational processes, cut costs, and speed up information delivery.

Impact of Hot and Cold Aisle Containment on Data Center Temperature and Efficiency

Impact of Hot and Cold Aisle Containment on Data Center Temperature and Efficiency

Both hot-air and cold-air containment can improve the predictability and efficiency of traditional data center cooling systems. While both approaches minimize the mixing of hot and cold air, there are practical differences in implementation and operation that have significant consequences on work environment conditions, PUE, and economizer mode hours. The choice of hot-aisle containment over cold-aisle containment can save 43% in annual cooling system energy cost, corresponding to a 15% reduction in annualized PUE. This paper examines both methodologies and highlights the reasons why hot-aisle containment emerges as the preferred best practice for new data centers.

Monitoring Physical Threats in the Data Center

Monitoring Physical Threats in the Data Center

Traditional methodologies for monitoring the data center environment are no longer sufficient. With technologies such as blade servers driving up cooling demands and regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley driving up data security requirements, the physical environment in the data center must be watched more closely. While well understood protocols exist for monitoring physical devices such as UPS systems, computer room air conditioners, and fire suppression systems, there is a class of distributed monitoring points that is often ignored. This paper describes this class of threats, suggests approaches to deploying monitoring devices, and provides best practices in leveraging the collected data to reduce downtime.

Cooling Strategies for Ultra-High Density Racks and Blade Servers

Cooling Strategies for Ultra-High Density Racks and Blade Servers

Rack power of 10 kW per rack or more can result from the deployment of high density information technology equipment such as blade servers. This creates difficult cooling challenges in a data center environment where the industry average rack power consumption is under 2 kW. Five strategies for deploying ultra-high power racks are described, covering practical solutions for both new and existing data centers.

Power and Cooling Capacity Management for Data Centers

Power and Cooling Capacity Management for Data Centers

High density IT equipment stresses the power density capability of modern data centers. Installation and unmanaged proliferation of this equipment can lead to unexpected problems with power and cooling infrastructure including overheating, overloads, and loss of redundancy. The ability to measure and predict power and cooling capability at the rack enclosure level is required to ensure predictable performance and optimize use of the physical infrastructure resource. This paper describes the principles for achieving power and cooling capacity management.