Thursday, 16 January 2014

We come OneNet

After hopefully clarifying IPv6 for the uninitiated in yesterday's post we can move on to OneNet.

OneNet is the NMEA's next-generation protocol for marine data "over ethernet".  Although the standard is both closed and not yet published, publicly available descriptions suggest that it has an application layer similar to NMEA 2000 but uses an Internet Protocol network layer.   The use of Internet Protocol means that OneNet data will be easily transportable over computer networks to PCs, tablets, phones etc.. Given that NMEA standards include the entire stack from the physical to application layers, use of non-ethernet networks, the Internet or wired networks not using OneNet connectors might be outside the standard but will almost certainly be an option available to consumers.

Use of Internet Protocol was almost a given for a new NMEA data communications standard.  The interesting thing is the version used: It's IPv6.

Why IPv6?

In many respects IPv6 is the ideal protocol for this application. A boat network of transducers and other devices is classic "Internet of Things" territory.  IPv6 provides a method for autoconfiguration thereby obviating the need for the NMEA to develop one.  IPv6 mandates supports for many features of relevance here which although now widely supported are strictly speaking add-ons to IPv4: multicast, security enhancements and quality of serviceIPv6 flow labels might potentially be leveraged by the NMEA for interaction with the underlying datalink layer to provide reserved bandwidth for lossless delivery in control links.  NMEA 2000 took many years to become widely adopted.  With the first OneNet products at least 2 years away, widespread market penetration might not occur until such time as IPv4 is starting to retreat towards obsolescence.    Using IPv6 for a product which may not be mainstream for more than 5 years avoids the pain of having to change the network layer at a later date.

Some people may have concerns that OneNet, being IPv6, will not interact with their existing computing devices.  As mentioned in the previous post, almost all modern consumer computing devices support IPv6.  Marina wifi and mobile providers are rarely configured to transport IPv6, but this is a good thing.  Ideally people's boat data networks would be entirely independent of the network they use for checking the weather and looking at LOLcats.  In practice it won't be, because the consumer will want to use their PC/tablet to look at both transducer data and cat videos.  A logical separation of networks is possibly the next best thing to a physical one.

On the money-spinning front, while IPv4 remains the predominant global network protocol, use of IPv6 on boats creates a market for "marine" NAT64 products and other devices to facilitate working with both IPv4 and IPv6.  "NMEA certified" networking equipment can be sold to those wary of purchasing cheap domestic alternatives with IPv4-only user interfaces.

My opinion is that IPv6 is undoubtedly the right solution to this problem, but that doesn't make it without challenges

The Challenges

Current marine software rarely supports IPv6

Many people would like to be able to just connect their laptop to their instruments over the network. Their marine software however (e.g. chartplotter program) will likely only take data from an IPv4 source.

Actually most marine laptop/tablet software uses an NMEA 0183 application layer data which is not what OneNet would be providing.  To use OneNet, the application would need updating whatever the network layer used. Adding support for IPv6 should be easy by comparison.

Embedded IPv6 stacks are not as mature as IPv4

Although the Linux and *BSD network IPv6 stacks are in widespread use, some people have concerns about the maturity of IPv6 stacks for microcontroller-based devices.  A lack of widespread use allows the possibility of as-yet unknown problems which can severely impact product development times.  Moreover selecting a 3rd party stack to use will involve a repeat of the research which a manufacturer would have already done in bringing IPv4-based products to market. I have insufficient experience in embedded product development to know how much of a problem this will be.  Use will obviously bring the maturity of IPv6 stacks into line with that of IPv4 stacks.

Staff skills

IPv6 expertise exists in many areas of IT but it is the exception rather than the rule.  Programmers working for marine technology companies are possibly less likely than those working for network hardware vendors to posses extensive IPv6 experience.  None of the large marine electronics companies can be emailed over IPv6 or have IPv6 accessible web sites, which might suggest that their IT infrastructure staff also lack experience in this area. Lack of experience implies increased training and development costs, greater risk and a longer time to market.

The unknown

An IPv4 network layer for OneNet looked like a safe choice. Challenges would be readily anticipated from existing development work and experiences from existing NMEA-over-IPv4 work with IEC 61162-450 and various vendor-proprietary solutions.  IPv4 would be familiar and readily accepted by consumers and manufacturers alike. IPv6 is not only new to the marine industry, practical use in an application like this is ground breaking.  As such the risks may be harder to quantify and in business, unquantifiable risk is bad.  What makes an excellent technical decision may not be such a strong business decision.


Two things I seem to spend a lot of time doing are IPv6 network coding and Sailing.  It's no surprise that I'm delighted that IPv6 will form the network layer for OneNet.  From a technical perspective I strongly believe it to be a brilliant decision and a bold one.

The implications of this choice extend beyond the boating industry.  If OneNet comes to fruition it will be one of the first true industry-led steps towards the much discussed Internet Of Things.  Demonstrable success would diminish risk associated with similar initiatives in other industries and drive adoption.  IPv6-connected marine devices would create business opportunities for network connected services which could give impetus to adoption of IPv6 connectivity and change the way in which we all interact with the Internet.

From a business perspective it seems like a brave move.  It would appear to carry more business risk and short-term cost than the safer IPv4 alternative.
Technology is more my department than business, but an industry taking the long view to the ultimate benefit of the consumer makes a refreshing change.

Another two years or more is a long time to wait for OneNet, even assuming things stay on schedule.  Not only do the risks imply delays in themselves, but caution may delay development efforts in some organisations.  The CTO of one well-known marine electronics company told me that his organisation were adopting a "wait and see" policy towards the new standard.

It will be interesting to see what proprietary or open standards might fill the gap between then and now and whether one of those regents may ultimately pretend to OneNet's throne.

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