We didn't understand Ubicom very well when we showed up in July for a visit. We knew they did something to help media content work better over home networks, but it wasn't clear just what it was. Several pieces we read suggested that it might be worth visiting with them on a recent trip to California, and we were glad we did.
What we heard is that Ubicom's combination of hardware and software is the secret sauce that permits some new 802.11n wireless products to carry an MPEG-2 HDTV stream longer distances and through more walls than products without their solution. We also learned that Ubicom's chips and software are embedded in many of the major networking manufacturers' products and was the first routing platform to achieve Windows Vista certification.
At Ubicom's headquarters in Silicon Valley, Keith Morris, VP of Marketing, and Kevin Gee, Senior Product Manager, started our discussion with a reminder that media applications like VoIP, gaming and IP video are highly sensitive to latency and jitter. Their quality deteriorates as people use more and more applications over home networks and over the broadband Internet.
All of Ubicom's efforts are directed toward maintaining the quality of media streams without user configuration. Keith said "We measurably improve the experience of the end user. We do pattern recognition of what the stream is."
Accomplishing this requires a combination of software and hardware--software to implement the algorithms which keep each media stream working properly, and hardware to provide sufficient "horsepower" for the complex algorithms.
Ubicom uses the name StreamEngine® for its suite of hardware and software technologies. It has designed and sells special-purpose "network processors" optimized for efficient processing of time-sensitive media streams. It has implemented a complete software environment to maintain the quality of media streams as home networks expand and evolve. It offers a variety of reference designs that hardware companies can use to create finished products--either by manufacturing to the reference design, or by using the reference design as a starting point for a customized differentiated product.
On one level, Ubicom is a fabless semiconductor company, designing and marketing chips to be embedded into products like broadband gateways and wireless access points. Like any modern chip company, it provides reference designs and firmware drivers to its customers.
On another level, Ubicom is a very sophisticated software shop that also supplies hardware. It has created a complete software architecture for media networking, built a real-time operating system, and developed individual software modules to support a wide variety of wired and wireless networking applications. It recruits software partners to provide specialized applications.
Ubicom has delivered three generations of StreamEngine network processors. The latest, the 5000 family, is optimized to provide the processing core for 802.11n products. Ubicom calls the 5000-series devices "communications and media processors" (CMPs) to emphasize their role in processing high-speed communications streams and optimizing media performance.
Ubicom's processors are distinguished by having dedicated hardware to support multiple independent processing threads. Unlike conventional processors, the Ubicom processors switch between threads with no delay. The instruction set is specifically designed for optimum processing of communications protocols and media streams.
Intelligent Stream Handling (ISH)
Ubicom uses the term Intelligent Stream Handling (ISH) to describe its media-processing technology for wired media, and Wireless Intelligent Stream Handling (WISH) for wireless media. ISH/WISH identifies latency-sensitive media traffic and prioritizes it ahead of normal data traffic. Ubicom says "ISH/WISH minimizes the impact of large packets, modifies the WLAN radio speed for optimum throughput, overcomes interference from other devices such as microwaves, and reduces dropped packets typically caused by network congestion and manages competition for network resources."
Software Architecture and Reference Designs
Ubicom has developed a complete software architecture for its processors. At the heart is a special purpose real-time operating system, with software modules to support many different types of networking hardware and applications. Ubicom currently supports Ethernet, USB, HomePlug and 802.11 (including draft n).
Ubicom offers reference designs ranging from access points and print servers to complete digital media players and home gateways. The latest gateway design is targeted for 802.11n wireless networking and claims to be able to support HDTV, "toll quality" VoIP and online gaming simultaneously "with no degradation of service".
Adoptions and Reviews
Ubicom has shipped more than 5 million processors, with more than a million shipped so far this year. Its chips and software have been adopted by many networking manufacturers.
Ubicom believes that 802.11n will rapidly displace 802.11g, and is focused on overcoming the limitations of wireless networking for video applications. Ubicom's website shows the results of a study it commissioned, which predicts that 802.11n will overtake 11g by the middle of 2008 (see graph at the right). Ubicom's chips and software are embedded in several "draft n" products including wireless routers from D-Link, SMC Networks, TRENDnet, and ZyXEL.
A report Competitive Test of Draft 802.11n Products published in June by Octoscope, a Boston-based consulting company, compared several draft n routers for overall performance and specifically for high-definition video performance. A D-Link DIR-655 wireless AP/router based on Ubicom's technologies was included in a series of tests Octoscope conducted in simulated office and home environments. Octoscope concluded that the DIR-655 was suitable to carry an MPEG-2 HDTV stream at 110 feet and through 5 walls. It also concluded that the other tested draft n products could not carry the HDTV stream over this distance, and attributed the difference to Ubicom's WISH protocol. Although the study was funded by Ubicom, D-Link and Atheros (whose chips are used in the DIR-655), the published results appear credible.
We're always intrigued by companies that look for opportunities to apply their distinctive expertise. In the ideal world, home networks would all be built from the most up-to-date components incorporating the latest technological advances. In the real world, networks have a variety of legacy components, many of which do not comply with the latest standards. Ubicom says its technologies get the most out of what's already there.
We're looking forward to testing some of these Ubicom-based devices in our own home network.