IndraNet claims first customer for 'mesh' networks

Christchurch company IndraNet has attracted scepticism with its claim to a fundamentally novel way of networking, but it has now obtained a US patent as well as several in other countries and is part-way into its first commercial project with Electricity Ashburton.

The IndraNet approach uses a multilayered self-organising network. Users add and remove devices from the network arbitrarily. Each node “knows” only how to communicate with its nearest neighbours. When the network at the lowest, most complex level becomes too congested, the message hops up to the next, more simple level and finds a more direct route to a place on that layer near its destination.

To achieve network speed and efficiency, good network design and efficient routing algorithms are much harder problems to solve than the transmission technology used to send data between nodes, says Dr Louis Arnoux, managing director of Christchurch company IndraNet.

Typically there are three layers of intelligent nodes (“minders” in IndraNet parlance). At the lowest level are the minders, then the more powerful “metaminders” and at the top the “hyperminders”. In the higher levels, the nodes are sparser and the links of a higher capacity.

To cover a small region, says Arnoux, the network might only require two levels. To competently cover a densely populated city like Hong Kong might require up to six.

IndraNet, he says, deals economically with “the last 10 miles”, rather than the proverbially troublesome “last mile” of a telecommunications connection. It concerns networking among a community, not bottlenecked delivery to an individual home or business. Key hyperminders on an IndraNet network are designed to be attached to a conventional long-distance satellite link or the internet.

In conventional hierarchical networks the more nodes are added the more complex and less efficient the network becomes. It is not unusual for 10% of the nodes to end up processing 90% of the traffic, Arnoux says. Wireless networks on a flat plain, particularly with obstructions like Canterbury’s shelterbelts of trees, do not work well, he says.

Indranet conquers the congestion problem with dynamic alternative routing, he says. The signal-to-noise ratio, another problem of complex conventional networks, is kept at acceptable levels by “the cocktail party syndrome”; “I don’t have to shout across the room to you, I only have to whisper to my neighbour”.

The multilayer organisation of the minders reduces the problem of latency in such multi-hop communications, Arnoux says.

Lastly, scalability is not a problem because each added minder brings new processing capacity, more routes and more total bandwidth to the network. “The more people come to the party the better it runs.”

He says nearest-neighbour knowledge is how the internet works to an extent, but the internet is necessarily superimposed on an old-generation network, which limits its utility. Even a wireless network is a hierarchical setup, where some nodes control others. In IndraNet, despite the superficially hierarchical appearance of the hyperminder, metaminder and minder layers, all nodes are equivalent.

All nodes, too, pack a fair amount of processing punch. The current cigar-box-sized minder incorporates a 500MHz processor with 128MB of memory running embedded Linux, which makes it easier to intermesh with the rest of the internet, Arnoux says. Current bandwidth of links is 2Mbit/s, but he says a 2Gbit/s capacity has been proved possible.

The minder could embody a video camera, he says, “so you can [consult an expert] and say” — gesturing with his own PDA — “‘this engine doesn’t work’ or ‘my kid has spots like this, look’.” The ultimate goal of broadband, he says is easy face-to-face-style communication.

In addition to the Ashburton project, IndraNet has entered into a joint-venture agreement for a rollout in Fiji and is at the planning stage for another five-year project in association with investors in South Australia. “Adelaide is flat like Christchurch, but bigger," he says.

“We want to line up two or three more projects like that, then create a commercial distribution structure,” Arnoux says. IndraNet has formed a joint venture with Sydney company CMP (Corporate Momentum Providers) to help it move into this next phase.

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