Will nVoy become the one home networking standard to rule them all?

The IEEE 1905 standard for hybrid home networks now has a name--nVoy--and a certification program.

Have you heard the saying "The best thing about standards is that there are so many to choose from?" It popped into my mind when I learned of the new nVoy brand and certification program for products based on the IEEE 1905.1 standard. If you're not familiar with it, IEEE 1905.1 defines hybrid networks that combine Wi-Fi, ethernet-over-powerline, MoCA (Multimedia over Coax Alliance), and conventional wired ethernet topologies.

Each of those technologies is defined by a standard of its own, of course. And then there's the ITU's G.hn, a wholly separate standard from a different international body that defines hybrid home networks that use powerline, coax, and phone line, but not wireless (although it can coexist with Wi-Fi).

So why does the world need a standard that defines a collection of standards? For that matter, why does the world need the Wi-Fi Alliance's 802.11ac certification program? If IEEE 1905.1 and IEEE 802.11ac are standards, why do we need marketing consortiums to certify that products based on those standards will be interoperable? Isn't that the very definition of the word "standard"?

After all, I already operate a hybrid network at home: Some of my devices connect via Wi-Fi, some use HomePlug AV powerline, and my entertainment center runs on MoCA. Everything is connected to my gigabit ethernet Wi-Fi router. And my hybrid network was running fine long before someone thought to come up with a fancy logo for it.

In search of answers to these questions, I interviewed HomePlug Alliance vice president and Broadcom senior technical director Stephen Palm and consumer communications services analyst Mike Jude of market research firm Frost & Sullivan.

Help with setup and troubleshooting

So, what does nVoy certification bring to the networking party? The major benefits are simplified setup and diagnostic tools that can help troubleshoot problems. A new nVoy component can get its configuration info from existing ones at the push of a button, freeing consumers from having to tediously input info such as SSIDs and passwords, Palm explained. The diagnostics (information on link rates, network topology, and so on) can be accessed locally by customers and remotely by service providers.

Service providers especially stand to benefit from widespread deployment of nVoy and its successors (as the IEEE 1905 working group develops them). As more and more people use networks for streaming media and are therefore more likely to notice performance problems, service providers will want a way to see what's going on when a customer complains, without incurring the expense of dispatching a truck and a technician. "Keeping that network running is absolutely essential to selling services that use it," Jude says.

Both Jude and Palm say that while G.hn and nVoy both seek to make network setup easier, they are fundamentally different technologies. G.hn describes a chip technology (it's a PHY, a physical spec) for gear that would replace--and is incompatible with--equipment based on existing wire-line standards. A G.hn component can't talk to a HomePlug or MoCA device.

The nVoy spec, on the other hand, doesn't work at the PHY layer of a network chip. It's part of the software overlay that talks to the hardware of all supported network standards. At launch, these supported standards include HomePlug, MoCA, Wi-Fi, and ethernet, but there's no reason why nVoy couldn't be revised to support G.hn, too.

More important, nVoy-certified gear will be backward-compatible with the popular network technologies that it supports--the underlying ethernet bridging doesn't change--so you don't have to abandon the equipment you already have. You can simply upgrade to nVoy-certified gear as you replace older components that don't enjoy the benefits of the technology.

This doesn't mean that there's no place for G.hn in the home, Jude notes. It might, for example, be useful for someone building a new home entertainment center who wants to mix and match components that use different network technologies. And having components based on G.hn would greatly simplify setup.

Timetable for nVoy

Those who follow networking standards may wonder how long IEEE 1905 has been in the works. The answer: not that long. The working group was set up two and a half years ago, Palm says, and the draft spec followed in December 2011. Having lived through the drama of 802.11n Wi-Fi development, which took many years, I wondered aloud how the working group was able to produce the draft so quickly.

Palm explains that unlike the 802.11 working group, which has been composed of as many individuals as cared to pay for IEEE membership, 1905 is composed of only entities (read: companies). Companies can't pack the group, as happened with 802.11, by paying for more of their employees to join. That means the working group had a lot fewer members, which tends to speed things up.

At Computex in Taiwan earlier this month, the news release announcing the nVoy branding and certification program (which will be managed by the HomePlug Alliance) indicated that the first nVoy-certified products were expected to reach the market later this year. As with the Wi-Fi Alliance, the certification program will test products that claim to adhere to the IEEE 1905.1 standard to ensure that they will be interoperable with other products making the same claim.

As Palm points out, however, the news release covered only certification, so actual products will likely not ship until sometime later. It may take a while for us to enjoy the benefits of nVoy, but the standard that could make home networking easier--even if it's one more logo to be on the lookout for. You can read more about it at nVoy.org.

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Yardena Arar

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