Set top boxes to revolutionise Internet architecture

Peer-to-Peer technology delivering content through set top boxes could see data center days numbered.

National ICT Australia (NICTA) has earned a spot in a European Commission project that aims to revolutionise the way information is delivered over the Internet.

The European Commissions 7th Framework Program (FP7) for Research and Technological Development is the $50 billion Euro umbrella under which research-related EU initiatives are housed, and is charged with keeping the EU at the forefront of technological research.

The project NICTA is working on, called Nano Data Centers (NADA), is part of the FP7's future Internet initiative, and has attracted almost AUD$5million in EU funding, with NICTA investing over a quarter of a million dollars in resources.

NADA will seek to build an Internet architecture that delivers data from the edge of the Internet, instead of the network-centric architecture that stores and delivers content from data centers via Internet backbones.

NICTA's Networked Systems Research Group Manager, Dr Max Ott, said the traditional way of delivering online services to the user from huge data centers is a very power and space hungry method that is expensive in terms of hardware, networking and cooling costs.

"If you think of services like video, music, entertainment and MMOGs (massively multiplayer online games), the end device is not necessarily your PC anymore. Rather it is something like a set top box or a game console, especially in Europe where set top boxes are very common in providing a lot of functionality like triple-play services and things like that."

These set top boxes are well ventilated, and are providing more and more efficient output as chip manufacturers create speedier, more energy efficient processors and storage manufacturers create smaller, higher capacity products.

"So why don't we try to take the functionality that we have now in the data center, and distribute it across hundreds of thousands of set top boxes so that we have these 'Nano Data Centers'," Ott explained.

NADA is seeking to leverage advancements in Peer-to-Peer technology to connect the Nano Data Centers to enable them to work together to provide services to end users.

The set top box would essentially be split in two - one half facing the end user with all the typical functionality and services, while the other half acts as the Peer, or Nano Data Center.

"We isolate them using virtualization technologies, and that secure compartment is now talking to all the other set top boxes, co-ordinating and shifting stuff around. Each of the set top boxes has plenty of storage in it so we can put them together and build a massive data store for all those YouTube videos, Flickr pictures or whatever. We're using Peer-to-Peer under the hood to provide a service," Dr Ott said.

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Dr Ott admits that the jury is still out on NADA's potential as they haven't yet fully demonstrated its capabilities on par with existing delivery methods.

"But we definitely think if we actually harness all those processing and storage capabilities on the edge, then we don't need a lot of those data centers."

The NADA project is convincing enough to have attracted some of Europe's largest telecommunications companies. Set top box manufacturer, Thomson SA, and European ISP, Telefonica, are among nine contributing partners to the NADA project.

"Telefonica is a key partner and they are running a trial video service to deliver TV, educational videos etc with a Peer-to-Peer client from inside their cloud, and it's been very successful. And we have Thomson SA, one of the largest set top box manufacturers in the world, so they can clearly see the benefits," Dr Ott said.

"The main thing now is if we can demonstrate the benefits, how quickly will the companies turn it into a commercial outcome."

According to NICTA, the NADA project represents a paradigm shift toward highly distributed service delivery platforms and its results promise enhanced performance of home entertainment networks, low-cost content delivery and support for new applications in the online games arena.

Dr Ott said it was the first time NICTA has been included in the FP7, and indicates that Australian ICT research is considered to be at the forefront of the international stage.

"I am delighted NICTA's research into advanced communications architecture and distributed services has been recognised for the world-class contribution it can make to future applications and research platforms. Gaining a place in the highly competitive European Commission Framework program is a tribute to the international standing of NICTA researchers."