Nov 7, 2014
Some time back, I was carrying out some work for IBM looking at how battlespaces required a new means of pulling together the complex raft of technologies used by the military. These technologies involve many different devices exchanging data across a broad area — an Internet of Things (IoT) to all intents and purposes. Looking at what has been happening in the battlespace environment may well provide insights as to what is needed at the network level — including how net neutrality and the IoT may need some compromises to provide desired levels of service.
The physical place where a battle is taking place will have information coming in from many ground systems, including individual soldiers, vehicles and other equipment, as well as airborne assets such as planes and drones. The data gathered needs to be aggregated in real time for tactical planning by the forward command post (FCP) and for more strategic decision making at more central command posts close to the battlespace and further away.
The problem is in putting together a network that is battle-hardened to cope with the rigors of munitions, heavy military vehicles and manual interventions. Wired systems are not up to the job: wireless systems are only suitable if the infrastructure can be put in place and maintained, with no single points of failure.
So the military has been turning to low cost, low energy wireless mesh networks using small radio nodes costing only a few dollars that can be spread around a battlespace from high-altitude aircraft. Once on the ground, these nodes “discover” each other, creating a broad networked area. Should any single node be destroyed or fail to work, other nodes can take over and maintain network capabilities. It is, in effect, going back to the roots of the Internet: data is sent from point A in the direction of point B — how it gets there is down to best efforts against multiple possible paths.
The benefits for the military are manifold. The small amounts of data coming from many systems do not require much intelligence in the mesh nodes themselves – data needs to be transferred in a secure form to a more intelligent downstream environment where more permanent and intelligent network equipment can be installed. However, to ensure that the mesh doesn’t collapse under the weight of its own data, a degree of intelligence needs to be in place as close to source as possible to dump any data that adds no value to the overall decision making. For example, readings that a soldier’s blood pressure is within acceptable margins can be disregarded; whilst a case where blood pressure is plummeting should indicate that the soldier will need to be extracted from the battlespace as they may well have been injured. The same goes for temperature fluctuations in the lubricants in an armored vehicle, or in the count of available ammunition for a high-speed machine gun on a helicopter.
Hang on, though, isn’t this just the same as what we need when dealing with the internet of things (IoT)? Each of these military assets are just “things” on the network; the way that information needs to be passed up and downstream along a network is just what we need for the IoT.
In a previous blog post I already discussed how a system of nodes would be required to deal with the inherent data chatter of the IoT, keeping low-level data within defined areas while enabling better transport of important data along the network to more centralized systems.
What the battlespace also teaches us, though, is that the network itself needs to be resilient to levels beyond those levels found in the majority of existing public/private networks. Sure, the Internet in itself is a best efforts system, but as more traffic shaping and tunneling is introduced, small-packet, high-volume data could be given a low priority, or may even be removed from certain non-neutral Internet streams completely.
Although it’s against the almost “hippy” concept of a single network quality and priority for everyone/everything concept espoused by net neutralicists, we may have to look at moving closer toward the he-who-pays-gets-better-net-performance crowd. With the need for a highly resilient network for the IoT, this becomes even more important. Unless a mutually acceptable middle ground is found, the IoT will struggle: such chatty data will be forced out from the QoS/PoS networks unless those requiring the IoT data can afford to pay top dollar for dealing with such a mass of data. Far better to have a degree of acceptable traffic modelling, with a net-neutral part of the Internet being able to deal with IoT traffic on a best efforts basis — but with such a highly resilient and multi-pathed network that the data transport is guaranteed.
Some of this guaranteed network could be provided in the same way as the early 2000’s public WiFi networks were being put together: many users hived off a small proportion of their own WiFi router and backhaul capability to provide neighborhood access systems free to all. These systems harked back to the more hippy commune environments of the 1970s, and don’t seem to have resonated quite so well with today’s millennials.
Maybe it is time for the “hippy” and “military” groups to come together to create the next generation of meshed networks for the new era of IoT?
Image credit: WikiMedia Commons