Friday morning, I was up at an obscenely early hour to catch my flight to Adelaide. It was the end of a hectic week in Australia and I was off to meet Simon Hackett.
Simon took me to Internode Systems, his startup company of three people with a suite of offices located behind an Adelaide realty company. While Simon handled the usual run of emergencies caused by being away for an hour, I examined a disemboweled Sun 2 in the corner, an ancient machine based on a Motorola 68010. The huge 100 amp power supply had died, which was just as well because, as Simon pointed out, the thing drew enough power to drive a welder. Instead, a power supply from a little PC had been put into place and the Sun was up and running.
Simon is best known for putting funny things on the Internet. At INTEROP 90, with the help of TGV, he showed off his Internet CD player. The Internet CD player was a stereo system controllable over the network. Connectivity to the net was provided by a “magic box,” consisting of a Motorola 68000 CPU, some memory, and a couple of RS-232 ports.
The box was connected to the INTEROP show network using a SLIP link off one of the RS-232 ports. Portable TCP/IP software from TGV and portable SNMP code from Epilogue Technology were put into the magic box.
The stereo system was a Pioneer tuner/amplifier, a Pioneer PD-M910 six-disc CD player, and two Klipsch speakers. The CD player has a “remote control in” jack, allowing control of both the tuner and the CD player. The output signal from the CD player has a mix of digital audio samples and status information.
An SNMP MIB was defined and some X Window System software was written to interact with the SNMP module on the magic box. Of course, any SNMP network management station could have been used, but the X software had a nice visual representation of the stereo system. When the network management station changed a MIB variable, that information was used by Simon’s code on the magic box to control the CD player.
The problem with doing something cute like the Internet CD player is that everybody expects you to top yourself the next year. At INTEROP 91 Fall, Simon separated the speakers from the CD player, using the Internet to distribute sound. The result was the NetPhone.
The NetPhone is basically just a protocol for encoding sound (or any other data) on the network. This protocol, the MultiMedia Data Switch (MMDS), is built on top of UDP. MMDS takes a sample of data, and puts it into a UDP packet along with information such as the sampling rate and encoding format. The protocol can handle most isochronous data such as video or audio.
The user input to the NetPhone is simply an audio board, such as those that are commonly found on Sun, NeXT, PC, or Macintosh computers. A telephone, speakers, or a microphone can all be connected to these boards.
To provide connections between two NetPhones, a switchboard was implemented on a VAX. A phone makes its presence known by registering itself with this central switchboard. To place a call, a user issues a request to the switchboard, which then contacts the destination. If the two devices are available and have compatible sampling rates, a connection is established.
If only two nodes want to talk, it doesn’t make sense to have the switchboard in the middle. In that case, the switchboard issues redirect commands allowing the two nodes to send data packets directly to each other. In the case of multiport calls, data goes to the switchboard which replicates the packets and resends them.
MMDS is thus more than just a phone protocol, it is a way of moving sound and video around a wide-area network. At INTEROP 91 Fall, there were NetPhones on various computers, allowing people to talk to each other. People could place calls to the CD player in the TGV booth and listen to music. There were also two tuners, one in Melbourne and the other in Santa Cruz, allowing people to listen to radio broadcasts from either of the two cities.
NetPhones are one paradigm of moving sound over the network, and similar efforts are underway in several places, including Xerox and ISI, to develop ways to use this technology. Another effort to incorporate sound into the network is multimedia electronic mail.
Were the two paradigms complementary or would one win? Simon felt that not only did we need both message-based and real-time voice transfer, the two technologies should be aligned, so a voice message could be redirected to a NetPhone, or so that a NetPhone might act as an answering machine, recording messages and then mailing them to the user.
Messaging is an important way to interact with people and certainly works on a one-to-one basis. However, the NetPhone also supports broadcast technologies, as in the case of allowing people all over the world to tune in to Melbourne radio and catch the cricket matches.
Simon was continuing to work on the question of moving voice around the network. He was looking at ways that the switchboard could be taken out of the loop and various other enhancements to the MMDS protocol.
His real interest, however, was the ability of the magic boxes to put arbitrary devices on a network. In that vein, he was working with Epilogue Technology to develop portable networking code that could be put on small, cheap boxes. That code includes TCP/IP, SNMP, and even higher level services such as NFS or the lpr protocol for line printing. The code runs on a box as stand-alone software, alleviating the overhead of a full operating system.
The possibilities for such a box are very intriguing. Think about being able to put an NFS server on the network by packaging a few disk drives into a small box. Or, put a tape drive in with a box and use that as a remote backup device on the network. The number of devices one could put on the network with a cheap interface are endless. How about a machine room temperature monitor? Or a toaster?
After we were done playing with the NetPhone and I had read my mail, we went to Simon’s house where I met his partner in Internode Systems, Robyn Hill. Robyn is also a naturalist and conducts tours of the Great Barrier Reef, the outback, and other scenic attractions in Australia.
The next day, Robyn, Simon, and I went for a tour of the Barossa Valley, one of Australia’s premier wine making regions. As we did the Barossa crawl, I was able to sample wines ranging from the typical mixes of Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz to more unusual varieties such as a fruity Alicante.
I was also able to replace the salami that was destroyed at customs with an appropriate offering of food for my friend in Bangkok. Each vineyard sold a variety of condiments, and I stocked up on pickled prunes and kiwi jams.
That night, we went to dinner at the Magic Flute, a posh restaurant in trendy North Adelaide. I started with a truffled boned quail, stuffed with a rich pheasant pate and glazed with aspic. My main course was an exquisitely prepared pigeon served over wild rice and finished with a Madeira glaze. Simon had the peppered kangaroo filet in a port gravy, garnished with the omnipresent beets, and Robyn chose rare mignons of venison.
Over dinner, we discussed the bizarre bribery trial of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, for decades the Premier of Queensland. It was alleged that Bjelke-Petersen wanted money from Alan Bond, one of the more prominent rat-pack Aussie businessmen. Instead of just handing over money in a brown paper bag, however, it is alleged that the bribe had an ingenious twist. Allegedly as a prearranged pretext, Bond’s national television network publicly insulted the prime minister. Bjelke-Petersen turned around and sued for libel and the case was settled out of court for cash.
While our dinner was good, dessert was absolutely spectacular. Robyn insisted we all get different things so she could taste them all. She ordered a gratin of raspberries and blueberries, cooked in a lemon custard and blowtorched on top to caramelize the sugar, then finished with an orange butter sauce. Simon had the hazelnut cake on a coulis of fresh coffee beans, and I had an ice cream confection of raspberry, mango, and passionfruit, separated by thin layers of chocolate licorice ice cream. Many fine lunches and dinners, indeed.
We headed back and I slept in their spare room, along with three very fat tree frogs that Robyn keeps, and a mountain of old disk drives that Simon keeps.