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Net said to need multicasting

Proponents of IP multicasting believe that widespread adoption of the technology is just around the corner.

SAN JOSE, California--Proponents of new bandwidth-conserving technology, called IP multicast, believe that widespread adoption of the technology for broadcasting data across internal corporate networks and the public Internet is just around the corner.

Despite remaining challenges, a consortium of companies that include Hewlett-Packard, Cisco Systems, and Microsoft gathered here to detail the latest developments in the adoption of software protocols that allow for Net-based broadcasting. The effort is being pushed as a necessary component in the evolution of the Net--that is, adding intelligence to current infrastructure even as that equipment is being updated to handle a greater load.

A good portion of current multimedia on the Net is hamstrung by the speed of the connection points, as well as the methods being used to disseminate the broadcasts. In current "unicast" models, every request for streaming video content from a user results in a separate bandwidth-hogging connection to the computer serving up the video.

With IP multicasting, a single stream of video can be disseminated to many users in what is essentially a "one-to-many" arrangement rather than a "one-to-one" situation.

The challenge for proponents of this scheme has been to line up the appropriate mix of hardware, software, and network service companies so that the technology can be widely used. That struggle continues, though executives from various firms said the case for the technology is getting easier to make every day, with final pieces coming together when the majority of the Net "backbone" adopts the technology.

Executives said significant adoption of IP multicasting on internal corporate networks should begin to happen this year, with adoption on the public Internet in 1999 or 2000.

"The issue is people don't know they want multicasting," said Judy Estrin, president and CEO of multicasting supporter Precept Software, addressing the esoteric nature of the technology.

The tools to implement multicasting across the public Net and private corporate intranets have been around for some time, used in academia as part of the "MBone," a multimedia fabric that overlays the Net.

Vint Cerf, senior vice president of Internet architecture and engineering at MCI Communications, noted that the current focus for multicasting supporters should be to provide reliable broadcasts of content to those who now expect the technology to work, serving as examples to others.

The effort got a boost with the announcement that Walt Disney will support the IP Multicast Initiative and will soon launch a custom client application strictly for the reception of fixed promotional material, such as clips from upcoming movies. Scott Watson, chief of computer science within Disney's research and development division, said the company is early out of the gate with the technology in order "to learn what works and what doesn't."

An initial closed beta program for the software will begin next week, he added.

A representative from cable infrastructure proponent @Home pushed multicasting as another way to add intelligence to networks, echoing a growing sentiment in the industry. Multicasting, along with virtual private network (VPN) technology, are both being hyped as alternatives to current methods of network usage.

Milo Medin, chief technology officer for the cable-based Internet access service, said multicast technology can "change the world" due to its bandwidth-saving attributes and that further reliance on unicast methods could "destroy" the Net infrastructure.

In conjunction with the multicasting confab, new additions to the roster of supporters were added, including Northern Telecom and Packeteer.

Some proponents also launched new products. Starlight Networks, for example, said it would release a software and services suite next week for corporations looking to deliver communications across their intranets.