Rich Media and the IoT: A Networking Nightmare

By now, most network professionals are used to the steady drumbeat of warnings that data loads are set to explode. The enterprise needs to improve both capacity and flexibility if it hopes to survive in an increasingly digital economy.

It turns out, however, that many of these warnings were off the mark.

The situation is, in fact, even more dire than it once appeared.

Most estimates of future traffic volumes are based on the idea that Big Data and the Internet of Things (IoT) will simply generate more of the textual and numerical data that the enterprise already encounters. In reality, the load will become increasingly populated with audio, video, graphics and other forms of rich media, which is a whole different ballgame for the network.

At CES, a company called NXP showed off a new range of ARM processors designed to bring functions like streaming media, voice recognition and networked audio to IoT endpoints. The i.MX 8M family is aimed at both consumer and industrial applications and is capable of supporting 4K UltraHD and HDR video streams plus up to 20 channels of SDS512 audio. The set includes single, dual and quad configurations featuring 1.5 GHz Cortex-A53 cores and GC7000 GPUs from Vivante Corp. At the moment the chips are available in limited samples, but general availability should kick off later this year.

If the prospect of perhaps millions of edge devices sending hi-res video onto enterprise IoT networks isn’t bad enough, think of what the burgeoning market for virtual and augmented reality will do. Earlier this year, the popular Pokémon Go game nearly brought no less than Google’s Cloud Platform to its knees when data traffic turned out to be 50 times larger than anticipated, said Data Center Frontier’s Rich Miller. As the 6k resolution traffic of emerging devices like the GearVR headset hit the network, the load could be 20 times greater than today’s full HD video. Not only will this require substantial network bandwidth, but local caching will need a bump in order to keep latency within acceptable limits. It’s worthwhile noting that VR/AR is not just for games but is expected to inhabit a wide range of professional applications as well.

Even without the IoT, the enterprise is likely to face rising traffic due to the increasing popularity of media services in legacy business applications. According to AccuStream Research, the digital video value chain industry grew by 28.7 percent last year to bring in more than $68 billion in revenue. This covers everything from IPTV and advertising technology platforms to advanced media processing and content delivery networks. This growth is expected to accelerate for the rest of the decade as social platforms like Facebook and Twitter harness the power of audio, video and graphics to enhance the user experience.

For the enterprise, this will drive the need for new generations of high-bandwidth crosspoint switches, according to TMR-Semiconductor Research. Designers like Mindspeed, Texas Instruments, Analog Devices and Vitesse are devising new high-speed packet processing techniques aimed specifically at transporting high-quality video across Internet and data center networks. Much of the activity is centered on multi-protocol support and the ability to handle various data formats and clock sources in order to reduce complexity on the network hardware layer.

High-res graphics and video have long been a bane to data networks. No sooner do vendors reach milestones in terms of clarity and motion than users begin demanding more. And with unlimited virtual resources at their disposal, few users seem to understand that improving media performance is not simply a matter of scaling up the data footprint.

From a networking perspective, at least, the best answer to the demands of rich media applications is better infrastructure, particularly on the physical layer. And the simple truth is that these kinds of network upgrades will take some time.

Arthur Cole covers networking and the data center for Enterprise Networking Planet and IT Business Edge. He has served as editor of numerous publications covering everything from audio/video production and distribution, multimedia and the Internet to video gaming.

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