History Repeating? The Network Audio Shootout

By October 7, 2015Editorial, Internet
armshouse group dante vs the rest
For a while now I’ve been watching the audio (and video) industry’s march towards IP with a slight sense of déjà vu. It is very reminiscent to me of the early ’90s period when computer networking was starting to flourish across many enterprises and the battle for which technology would dominate was starting to heat up.

For those of us who can remember these times, you’ll recall that the big daddy of computer networking was Novell with their hugely successful (and good) NetWare suite. Novell were so prevalent that, at their peak, they had a 70% market share with their network operating system being used by large organisations and spanning many industries. At that time, NetWare was a really solid product that worked very well; they had a few other competitors and there were other protocols and technologies, but nobody had really honed things the way Novell had.

Fast forward a few years on and Microsoft had taken notice of Novell’s rise and the financial potential of a networked offering; they formed an alliance with hardware vendor 3Com to start work on a product called LAN Manager. The first iterations of LAN Manager were technically inferior to NetWare and with multiple white label versions for many of the UNIX platforms, there were too many players to work coherently and support it. It wasn’t till Microsoft parted with 3Com and began work on Windows NT, bundling TCP/IP into the platform, that a plausible alternative was in the mix.

Once Windows 95 was out (again with TCP/IP support) and shipping with enough networking tools to make it useful, the crown of Novell slowly began to slip. Windows 95 networking was good enough for most use cases and the price certainly beat the full-blown enterprise architecture of NetWare. Even though it took Windows NT a long while to achieve feature parity with Novell and NetWare 4.0 eventually included TCP/IP, it didn’t matter any more.

This little trip down memory lane is all well and good, but how is it relevant to the networked audio landscape? Well, I get the impression from many of the articles I read and white-papers (sponsored or otherwise) that it’s game over and we already have a victor in our protocol shootout. I suspect that this is somewhat of a false dawn; Tim Shuttleworth makes a similar assertion in his article: The Nominees are AVB or Dante; And the Winner is?

“I think we have to recognise that Dante is in a lead position but I would have to flat out disagree that it’s true or useful to declare the race over and call Dante the winner”.

I’d have to agree with Mr Shuttleworth and my hope is that as AV protocols and standards continue to evolve, we can use some of the prior art and experiences of the IT world to our advantage and perhaps get ahead of the curve a little. For example, we can build support for IPv6 and security in to our protocols/software from the get go, rather than have to revisit and retrofit later on. We should also strive to support open standards where possible. When the underlying fabric is largely ubiquitous, this encourages manufactures to focus on innovations that differentiate their products by other means. In the same way that mobile phone manufacturers are seldom concerned with the phone networks themselves, as they are the capabilities of their handsets.

I’m not at all anti-Dante, I think Audinate deserve every accolade and have done much to progress this area of our industry; as have the people before them. It’s their lead to keep, so let’s wish them luck.