I'm a network engineer, and like many engineers I often gravitate to the big projects; large networks with problems of scale and complexity in my case. However, I also consider myself a student of Occam's razor and often quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry: "perfection is reached not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away." In this spirit of "less is more” I have recently become intrigued by the problems appearing in home networking.
Up till now home networks have been fairly simple; a single home router and one LAN. A single WAN IP address, DHCP RFC 1918 space in the LAN, and NAT on the home router. If the user needed extra Ethernet ports or more WiFi coverage they simply hooked up another home router, which DHCP'd it's own RFC 1918 LAN and NAT'd that into the "primary" LAN.
For the most part this seems to work, so why fix what ain't (too) broke? Why is this an interesting area now?
Home networks are starting to be bombarded by a plethora of new use cases:
So what does this mean for home networks?
Tomorrow's Home Network
These emerging use cases for the home network, along with the facilitating technologies (including IPv6), seem to be pushing us away from the simple, single router home network of the past to a much more complicated multi-router future.
For one example, I think it will become common to buy a pre-packaged "home security system in a box" that will include a multitude of door and window sensors, motion detectors, glass break sensors, etc. all IP enabled and ready to connect wirelessly (perhaps with 6LoWPAN) to the included router / gateway. This home security router will then be plugged in (likely quite arbitrarily) to the existing home network, alongside a home theater router, a smart kitchen router (perhaps embedded in an eFridge), etc.
Of course, adding routers to a network increases its complexity. In enterprise and service provider networks, increased complexity can be dealt with by training or hiring network engineers (or bringing in contractors). In the home however, I do not believe that we can assume that network users will increase in complexity themselves (nor will they hire engineers). This is the crux of the home network problem statement; how do we deal with increasing network complexity in home networks without increasing the complexity of operating a home network? We must design a network that is completely self-configuring in (almost) every situation. This raises several problems that must be solved.
Opportunities for Innovation
There are a number of problems, er opportunities, that must be addressed to enable this multi-router, arbitrary-topology, configuration-less home network:
As network engineers begin to address the future of home networking, we should keep the principle of Occam's razor and the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry top of mind. We need to ask ourselves about the expected level of sophistication, for both devices and users. I think we can generally agree that while home networks will become more complex, home users will not (and the gear can't get more expensive either). We should remember that while we may have gained our experience and expertise working on enterprise, campus, or service provider networks; home networks are a new and different challenge, requiring a new and different approach. We must also consider the 80/20 rule and not let exceptions (often our own "home networks") rule the conversation and spoil the solution for everyone else. Finally, like any design endeavor, we should fight to keep the solution(s) as open and extensible as possible - while we need to solve for an unmanaged network, we mustn't close the door on configurability for more advanced users and uses.
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