Addressing IP addressable devices

Walk around an airport, a shopping mall or many other semi-public spaces and you’re almost certainly on camera. It’s increasingly likely you’re also on the Internet – not necessarily in the sense that someone can type in a URL and see you grabbing a quick beer in the airport bar, but in the sense that the camera that captures your image has an Internet address.

Video surveillance systems are increasingly switching to Internet Protocol in place of the old dedicated networks of coaxial cable. And while the cameras aren’t necessarily accessible via the public Internet, this raises some interesting issues. Nor are cameras the only new types of device being added to the Internet. There are gadgets for attaching factory machinery to the Internet. Computer peripherals like printers, cameras and MP3 players are being given IP addresses.

The benefits are obvious. A new building can have one network that handles security video as well as voice and data networking. Transferring pictures or music files at home will get easier. Equipment might be monitored remotely.

But there are potential issues too. Even though they promise increased convenience, new capabilities always mean something new for consumers to learn. Setting up these IP-addressable devices promises to create some headaches – and some calls for help.

Security is a big one. Attaching devices to the Internet makes them easier targets for viruses. How much this matters depends on the device. A virus might delete a few holiday snapshots from your digital camera, but its damage potential is limited. A virus can do more harm on a smartphone or PDA, and such viruses have already begun appearing. Any device that can be controlled remotely might potentially be controlled by the wrong people, with serious consequences. Think of thieves tapping into a video surveillance system and using it to see where the security guards are.

Then there’s the load on the network. Adding video traffic to corporate networks will obviously increase bandwidth requirements, in some cases beyond what the existing infrastructure can handle. More network upgrades – good news if you sell cabling and network gear, or related services.

At home, the growing number of household gadgets able to connect to the Net will probably spark more interest in home networks. Also good news if you sell that sort of gear.

But the more gadgets get IP addresses, the more IP addresses we need. To see where this will lead, look at how the proliferation of fax machines, cellphones and so forth has driven the North American phone system to new area codes and 10-digit dialing. The equivalent in the Internet world will be Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6), which uses 128 rather than 32 bits for addresses, allowing for far more addresses.

So what do we have here? A typical technology trend – it promises some benefits, it will create some headaches, and it will sell more hardware. Oh yes – and it’s hard to separate the reality from the hype.

On the one hand, IP-based video surveillance seems to be quite real, and cellphones and PDAs are undoubtedly going IP. On the other, a lot of what we hear about proliferation of IP-addressable devices is harder to judge. Whatever became of those fridges with Internet addresses, for instance? I still haven’t seen one outside of a press release.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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