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Startup takes disruptive approach to Ethernet

September 14, 2010 // Rick Merritt

Startup takes disruptive approach to Ethernet

A five-person startup debuts Tuesday (September 14) with a layer-two protocol and media access controller it claims can radically reduce the power consumption and boost the efficiency of Ethernet networks. Ether2 is challenging network developers to design their own prototypes based on its simulation software.

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The startup is seeking $100,000 to complete software development on its proof of concept. Ultimately it aims to license its software and chip designs for use in a broad range of Ethernet products, starting with wireless sensor networks.

Ether2 licensed four patents on the distributed queuing random access protocol developed at the Illinois Institute of Technology. It claims DQ-RAP, once considered for use in cable-TV networks, will spark a revolution in Ethernet, enabling networks with automated quality-of-service mechanisms that do not require routers.

"We look at Cisco and companies like it as band-aid solutions that have been carrying on for 30 years a job of being network traffic cops" with big expensive routers, said Jonathan Gael, a co-founder and chief evangelist for Ether2.

The startup's solution requires replacing the MAC chip in an Ethernet product to run DQ-RAP. The protocol supports synchronous and asynchronous networking and automatically sets up bandwidth reservations based on QoS priorities when links become busy.

The approach can work in concert with higher-level protocols such as TCP/IP. It can also support interleaved synchronous and asynchronous networks.

The cable-TV industry considered DQ-RAP for video transmission before adopting today's DOCSIS alternative, Gael said. Researchers who developed the protocol at IIT founded Ether2 on the belief DQ-RAP also has significant advantages for packet processing networks.

The startup initially aims at wireless sensor networks in health care where the technology's low power and high reliability could be valuable. In addition, DQ-RAP is a broadcast protocol and therefore well suited to a wireless medium.

Gael said the Ether2 approach significantly decreases packet loss and thus cuts the energy-wasting need for packet retransmissions. DQ-RAP only does retransmissions when there is contention for a bandwidth reservation, he said.

Developers would need to design new sensor nodes and modify low-level software, but not change applications to enable the shift. "We want everyone using the Zigbee protocol to keep using it and not change their apps," said Gael.

Ether2 has designed a prototype of its MAC chip using a Xilinx Virtex 4 FPGA. It is seeking $100,000 to fund an estimated 500 engineering hours of work needed to write Java, Linux and C++ code for its proof-of-concept.

Ultimately it aims to release as open source both its software and its chip design, charging a licensing fee for use of the technology it refers to as The Q. To get network developers interested, Gael will release simulation code and issue a challenge at the Demo conference where the company is making its debut.

"I'd like to put out a Q Prize and have Silicon Valley fund it to see who could be first to get this technology into a commercial prototype," said Gael. "Engineers dont have to use our processor, they could start from scratch using our simulation code and still beat us," he said.


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