The network is the machine (at last!)

Dave Wilson saw Sun Microsystems’ demo object-oriented interoperability

Today, if you want to plug a peripheral into a PC-based system, whether it is a printer, plotter, modem or camera, you have to load a device driver into the PC to make it work. Some application software installs many of these device drivers onto your hard drive, just to ensure that it has accounted for all the peripherals that you might possibly be using in your system. Now, there is a much better way to do things, thanks to Sun Microsystems’ recently announced Jini technology. The idea behind the technology is that each device on a network, such as a disk drive, is intelligent enough to `know’ what its own capabilities are. In that way, when such a peripheral is plugged into a network, it can send information regarding its capabilities over the network. It can then be accessed by whatever else on the network might need it. It is a distributed, object-oriented model of computing.

Any networked computer system and peripherals then become a collection of devices and services that co-operate together. Any other device can then connect to this collection or network of services by just plugging into it. There are no drivers to find and no operating system to start and restart.

In the same way that Java technology enables software to run on any device, Jini software enables any device to participate in a network regardless of the underlying operating system of the device or network protocol used for communicating.

The idea has its supporters. Hewlett-Packard, for example, is planning to integrate Jini with its own JetSend technology. In a JetSend/Jini environment, users can send information from their JetSend/Jini-enabled devices to any other JetSend/Jini-enabled device on the network without having to worry about drivers, location or compatibility. For example, users could send an image directly from a digital camera to a remotely located printer – Jini would locate the registered devices and JetSend would ensure that the devices could share the information.

Send in the jets

JetSend, introduced nearly two years ago, is is a device-to-device communications protocol that enables direct interaction between devices. JetSend is transport-independent and can support IP, IR, RF, IEEE 1394 standards. The technology is also platform-independent – it will run on Microsoft Windows to Sun Sparc machines to the Palm Pilot.

For developers, Dallas Semiconductor has a chip set that will allow designers to `Jini-enable’ a wide range of equipment from door locks to machine tools.

The Jini software that runs in the chips tells the network what kind of device is attached and what it can do. Sun’s Jini software must be supported by a Java operating environment, including a virtual machine and support software classes. This chip set provides that environment ready-made so that the equipment manufacturer can more quickly develop network-ready devices.

The chip set currently contains three chips: a ROM containing the Java VM code and essential Java API classes, a microcontroller for processing and I/O, and an Ethernet interface chip for network connection. A single chip solution is also planned.

For programmers, Metrowerks, a supplier of software development tools has a licensing agreement with Sun Microsystems to provide the Jini technology to licensees of its CodeWarrior embedded tools. The Jini technology will be available as part of CodeWarrior Embedded Systems products for MIPS, PowerPC, DSP56800, M-CORE, SH, x86, ColdFire and 68K processors.

Co-operation between Echelon and Sun will focus on enabling Lonworks systems and Jini products to communicate and interact. Echelon’s Lonworks system is a standard for embedding intelligence into devices and integrating them into networked control systems. This will enable users to interact with control systems and devices from remote or mobile locations, and allow control devices to access a variety of Jini-based digital network services.

And the Jini interface may reach further than the factory and into the home too. When Jini was announced in January, Royal Philips Electronics, Sony Corporation, and Sun Microsystems all announced plans to collaborate in connecting the Home Audio-Video interoperability (HAVi) architecture (similar in concept to Jini itself) developed by eight major consumer electronics manufacturers with Sun’s Jini technology.

More than just one spec

Like Jini, the HAVi specification defines software elements, application programming interfaces (APIs), and communication protocols that allow digital electronics products to be interconnected and interoperated as a home entertainment network.

Designed for use with the IEEE1394 digital interface, HAVi supports high-speed, secure transmission of data. In addition, because the HAVi architecture allows products to reserve bandwidth and other resources, it is suited for the transmission of real-time audio visual data streams.

The companies aim to provide a solution that links HAVi compliant digital electronics equipment in the home to services provided by Jini technology over a network. Not only would this allow digital AV electronic equipment to access remote network services, such as a storage service for large video files, it would also allow users to remotely operate digital AV equipment and PCs across a Jini technology-based distributed network.

Sun Microsystems Tel: 01276 20444