Move the Router, Move the Paradigm

By Alex Goldman

February 17, 2004

Mesh architecture -- an intriguing and innovative way to deploy Wi-Fi networks -- takes a big step toward maturity as a result of this evolutionary development.

"For me, the Firetide story starts in the 1990s, when I was working at Apple," says Ike Nassi, Firetide's Chairman. He says he developed a wireless app called DataPCS, but did not have the spectrum to exploit it.

"I looked at the area again in 1997 when I was a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley. I started sketching out routing algorithms. Of course, 802.11 had not been ratified. There were no standards and no chips."

Call it third time lucky. When he checked out the industry again in 2001, he found an industry in boom. "People were even talking about mesh networking (I'd called it radio routers)."

So he founded Honolulu, Hi.-based Firetide (originally called Landmark Networks). Naming the proof of concept project Wireless Waikiki was brilliant, and the story was picked up in journals like the Hawaii Business Magazine. Notoriety brought funding, and, soon, custmers.

The basic idea of Firetide and its products, is to make it easier to deploy wireless broadband by facilitating a true mesh network.

The problem, as Nassi sees it, is the difficulty of installing wireless networks. It's difficult to find a place to install a hotspot, tough to set up a backhaul, and tough to find an installer who is a licensed electrician and (for airports) who also has a security clearance. "It's a real paradox that wiring is the most expensive part of wireless networks," he says.

"Site surveys are a bit of a black art, and all of these problems make it expensive to build a wireless network and to expand one. Of course, I'm talking about Wi-Fi but this is also true of other wireless networks."

Mesh networking solves many of the problems of hotspots and wireless networks. If every node can connect to every other node then backhaul is less of an issue. The mesh needs to connect to the upstream only in a few places, not in every location.

The company's products are getting noticed. Among several trade show awards, Firetide won a prestigious Best in Show award for Mesh Networking at Jupitermedia's Wi-Fi Planet Conference & Expo in Fall, 2003 (Jupitermedia is the parent company of the internet.com network, of which this website is a part). For more on the award, see Fall Wi-Fi Planet Best of Show Awards.

Turning on the Firetide

Firetide boxes are self configuring, and Firetide networks are self healing, so that if one goes offline the network routes around the problem. Each hop in the network adds only 2 ms in latency, so no latency problems are caused when the user goes through several hops within the mesh before getting to the upstream.

Every Firetide box is like every other. "You don't have to order one from Column A and two from Column B and seven from Column C," says Nassi. Currently, the boxes ship with 802.11b radios. The company does not bundle an access point, because different customers want different units. "One person wants Cisco, the other wants Proxim. We let them choose."

Each box has three Ethernet ports that can be used for anything the customer wants. "We just label them 1, 2, and 3," says Nassi.

Nassi says security is a strong selling point for Firetide. "People are worried about security with wireless. A wired switch can be locked behind a door and that gives you an element of physical security. We wanted to provide at least that if not more."

Firetide boxes give the operator the option to encrypt traffic as it enters the mesh and unencrypt it as it leaves. The operator can choose between no encryption, WEP, or 128-bit AES. In addition, while the traffic is in the mesh, it uses proprietary Firetide protocols. The mesh uses a Public Key Infrastructure (PKI) to make sure that only legitimate nodes are connected.

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