Sensor nets gain enterprise scale

* Routing, Web services, central mgmt could boost WSNs into the mainstream

Sensors, when they become liberally and universally installed, hold the power to transform how the world operates. But doing so requires wireless sensor networks that scale massively. And that likely means following in the architectural footsteps of traditional IP routers and mesh-enabled Wi-Fi devices, which discover one another automatically, choose best communications paths and ultimately communicate with enterprise servers and applications.

Sensors, when they become liberally and universally installed, hold the power to transform how the world operates. But doing so requires wireless sensor networks (WSN) that scale massively. And that likely means following in the architectural footsteps of traditional IP routers and mesh-enabled Wi-Fi devices, which discover one another automatically, choose best communications paths and ultimately communicate with enterprise servers and applications.

These happen to be among the traits of Arch Rock’s latest Web services-based WSN, announced this week and dubbed PhyNet, which the company describes as an Internet-scale WSN. To merit that moniker, the system decouples the location of the Arch Rock server that manages its WSNs and the routing functionality that passes information from the WSNs to an Arch Rock management and Web services server.

Not having to collocate what were once a combined router and management server within a few hundred feet of each WSN - which uses low-speed, short-distance IPv6-based personal-area network mesh technology to communicate wirelessly - opens the door to expanding WSNs in an unlimited fashion. As the size and number of WSNs grows, enterprises can add PhyNet routers, a new architecture component that speaks 802.15.4 on the downlink side to the sensors and Ethernet or 802.11 on the uplink side to the IP network, to avoid performance bottlenecks, notes Brian Bohlig, Arch Rock VP of marketing.

Command Information in Herndon, Va., is an integrator that tackles sensor applications for public safety and tracking in large mobile field sites. VP of R&D David Green says the company frequently turns to Arch Rock for its WSN because Arch Rock's Web services development platform “cuts integration with network applications by 99%,” in a market where most sensor application development and integration can cost six times the price of the sensors.

Green says his company is currently working with construction giant Bechtel on sensor tracking applications for mobile work sites and with global defense company Northrop Grumman on a sensor system to measure water quality at reservoirs and water towers to detect tampering. The application would be programmed to “cut off the flow of water to towers and to residential areas if anything has been tampered with,” he explains. “The PhyNet architecture would allow us to scale the system across the municipality wirelessly,” he explains.

Another component of the new PhyNet architecture, IPserial Node, “lets you plug older non-IP sensors into an Arch Rock node, set up a few definitions around it, and quickly turn them into a Web service,” Green adds.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.