Norm Schryer is an entertaining person to listen to. He's got stories; he's got technical know-how; he's got friends; he's got lots to say. This talk was a wonderful chance for him to touch on many aspects of life on line, and he obviously leads a full life!
By actually following through on a "neat idea" (rather than just talking about it) and calling around and spending some money, Norm and his group at AT&T Bell Labs managed to get themselves megabit/second access to their homes. To those of us who feel lucky if we can sustain a 14.4 kilobit link, this seems like Nirvana. However, as he touched on one aspect after another, it came back to reality: a lot of neat stuff and a lot of headaches.
In the first place, just getting connected involved lots of pieces, many of them not in the hands of the Bell Labs folks. The connection was through the local cable TV company, using special equipment at their office, at Bell Labs, and in the homes. Any one of those pieces could and did fail, at some point. As Norm pointed out, cable TV amplifiers mounted on telephone poles love winter, because it keeps them cool. This system was installed in the winter, then summer came along. In all, Norm described the system by saying "It's a rose: pretty, with thorns."
But once the connection was made, they started "playing" with the system. They had video cameras and microphones attached to their home systems, and came up with videophone and intercom software. As it turns out, these were only interesting or desirable for certain areas. The intercom was useful for the home environment, but unneeded at the office: it was too much of an interruption in the office, but a nice way to stay in touch with your co-workers during those otherwise quiet evening hours. The videophone was seen as a great benefit at work, but caused trouble at home. Norm told of one person who was video-conferencing with a friend one evening, when his wife came in to say, "C'mon, time for bed." Since she was unaware that the camera was on, she had not bothered to put on any clothes! The man at the other end said, "How nice to see you - ALL of you!" The camera was disconnected the next day.
This brought up the whole issue of visibility: when you're shooting your bits over the community's cable TV wire, how do you know who's looking at your packets? Should you encrypt your data? I gathered that this system does, but as Norm pointed out, that means you've got to decrypt each and every packet just to see if you should ignore it or not! If you've got a firewall at work, home systems need to be behind it, so that people can get their work done. But does that mean a hole in your firewall?
Norm ended with a wonderful description of another project put together by those zany researchers: a radio-controlled car with a camera, microphone, and speakers mounted on it. Apparently, this was used to terrorize the office populace, until they decided to restrict their play (I mean "work;" this is work, remember) to off hours. Still, Norm described using it to confront an unsuspecting worker one Saturday, "staring" him down, then zipping away, only to have the car "peek" around a corner at him. The victim was heard to tell someone, "It's a rabid dog!"
All in all, this talk was a treat to listen to, and the audience loved it. Don't miss a chance to hear Norm!
Dan Geer has been involved in various forms of electronic commerce before the term was coined, and is now involved in getting new types of businesses involved. One of his biggest challenges is to let business people know what electronic commerce is, and what it is not.
"It's too new to compare it to anything," Dan declared, but people always need a point of comparison. One of the major points he made was that up until now, much of commerce depended on where you were: how you contacted your customers, how you transferred funds, and how you were taxed. All of this changes with electronic commerce, because you and your customers could be literally anywhere.
He referred to electronic commerce as "Commerce on Steroids." It can be bigger and faster, it will reduce or remove the middleman and the paperwork, and it will "kill more dinosaurs than distributed computing did." However, he also listed several things which electronic commerce is NOT: it's not entirely new; it's not entirely divorced from today's life; it's not a guarantee of riches; and it will not be a bloodless revolution.
Although this was an interesting look at some of the issues of The Real World (as opposed to the Virtual World of many systems administrators), I found it to be too much of a philosophical overview with too few specifics. Still, there is no doubt that Dan Geer is on the forefront of bringing this new technology into the world of business.
ATM has a lot going for it. It's the high-speed networking of the future, with faster and faster speeds built into the specifications. It allows connections to be made with guaranteed bandwidth, avoiding the problems of contention inherent in Ethernet. Plus, ATM will take three inches off your waistline.
Well, maybe not the last part, but as Barry Kercheval pointed out, the hype surrounding ATM sometimes sounds like the miraculous products offered on late-night television. This talk brought up some of the truths and some of the fallacies of the miracle of ATM.
Much of this talk covered the low-level bits of ATM. Not all of the low-level bits, though, because ATM is full of them. For instance, Barry discussed why SONET (the transmission layer of ATM) is synchronous, but ATM is asynchronous; SONET uses synchronized clocks, but ATM cells can go anywhere within a frame. Personally, that's more detail than I needed - if I wanted that, I'd go to a seminar on the internals of ATM.
The "truth" part (in other words, the dirt) of the talk concerned the problems of dealing with various standards from various committees, which have various benefits and drawbacks to them. As an example, Barry explained how ATM's small, fixed-size cells (48 bytes of data) require IP packets to be split across several cells. The problem is, the size and checksum data are in the last cell, which means that if any cells are lost or damaged, you won't know until you get that last cell. What if it's the last cell that's damaged? You won't know until the last cell of the next packet!
Barry went on to describe the trials and tribulations of setting up an experimental network in the San Francisco Bay area. Much of the troubles were startup-related, since they were dealing with a first-cut system that was missing several valuable features of the ATM standard. However, it did allow the companies participating to find out the Truth about ATM, which left Barry less than impressed.