Tuesday, September 02, 2003

A vision paper from my EBS days

Because of a conversation with a recruiter in Dallas about an interesting embedded Linux project, I looked through some old files and found a vision paper I wrote during the good times at Enron Broadband Services, The Enron Media Lab at Rice University. As the technology discussed has passed its heyday and one of the companies no longer exists, I'll reproduce it here to give an idea of the sort of cool projects that were hot at Enron. Note the dated obsession with stock price—this was key to getting internal support for the project. This paper is also a good example of how to handle endnotes in HTML. (I apologize for the layout; the default stylesheet Blogspot provides me is fine for regular posting, but looks poor with a quoted HTML document such as here.)

The Enron Media Lab at Rice University

  1. About the Enron Media Lab
  2. Motivation
  3. How It Really Works

About the Enron Media Lab

The Enron Media Lab will be a state-of-the-art facility for researching and developing both fundamental and practical techniques to control end-to-end quality in IP/optical networks for high bandwidth multimedia applications. Housed at Rice University, and funded in part by Enron, one of the main goals is to provide a physical environment to commercialize the best in university research.

Models for the Enron Media Lab include the famed MIT Media Lab and Lucent Bell Labs Innovations™ (formerly just "Bell Labs"). The idea is twofold: to foster great research in an open environment and transfer that wealth into success in the marketplace, and to raise Enron's image as a technology leader and member of the New Economy by association with Rice and support for research.


First Day Jitters

When I entered Rice as a transfer in 1987, I took my mother on a walk about campus. It was a hot day in August, typical for Houston, and most of the time we spent trying to stay in the shade. At every building, we'd step out into the sun for a moment to get a good look and try to figure out what the building was for. We had the standard map of campus with us, but all that was good for was finding the names of buildings. When we wanted to know something about the building, it's history, or the classes taught there, the map was useless.

But this will soon change.

Nokia™ will build a high-speed wireless network[1] throughout campus and provide 3rd-generation phones to all the faculty, staff and students. And with all that bandwidth, Rice will need something to fill it with. In a year or two, when a freshman enters Rice and takes her parents walking about campus, the experience should be rather different than mine.

Using her 3rd-generation cell phone complete with a small, high-resolution color screen[2], she points the phone at a building and asks out loud, "What's that building?". The phone asks here some questions to identify the building clearly, drawing on the Enron Media Lab's systems integration. She continues her conversation, "What classes do they have in there?" The phone tells her. "Could you show me what that class is like?" At this point, the phone plays an excerpt from one of the lectures held in the building, using the Enron Media Lab's distance learning system. Her parents marvel at their daughter's decision to attend Rice.

How does it work?

Nokia™ and other cell phone companies provide the high-speed wireless network. Enron Broadband Services provides the media services and technologies to run multimedia on broadband networks, applications like 3rd-generation video cell phones, high-quality interactive audio-visuals and distance learning. And the Enron Media Lab provides the research that forms the basis for these services and technologies. The Enron Media Lab finds answers to questions like:

  • How can we integrate systems such as wireless networks, video-on-demand, and interactive and live multimedia?
  • How can we store large multimedia efficiently and quickly send it to the consumer?
  • How can we switch broadband from supply to demand, timely and efficiently?

A Great Day for Enron, A Great Day for Rice

While walking about campus and thinking about the Enron Media Lab, it occurred to me that there was so much available at Rice that was locked away unless you were present at just the right place, just the right time. When Willie's statue was turned around[3], I was there, but anyone else now would hear only second-hand stories.

But this will soon change.

Enron Broadband Services will deploy a high-speed multimedia bonanza, and everything from live speeches, classroom lectures and discussions, music school concerts and special events will be available as they happen to anyone who is interested, no matter where they are or what device they use. And they will be available for anyone to reexperience days, months or years later.

Sitting in his dorm room, a senior electrical engineer watches Ken Lay hand over a check for $10 million to Rice for the business school. He's watching from his PC, receiving the broadcast from the Enron Media Lab's experimental live broadcast system using Rice's high-speed network, and can pause, rewind, and catch up to the speeche as it happens. And some weeks later, he reviews the event on his PDA as he walks about campus, using the Enron Media Lab's experimental video-on-demand system, while preparing to go downtown for an interview at Enron.

How does it work?

Again, Enron Broadband Services provides the media services and technologies to run multimedia on broadband networks, applications like live broadcast, video conferencing and video-on-demand. And again the Enron Media Lab provides the research that forms the basis for these services and technologies. The steps are clear:

  • Without the Enron Media Lab to provide the fundamental research for multimedia and broadband, Enron does not have the technologies for applications and systems.
  • Without Enron Broadband Services and other Enron companies to provide the deployment for multimedia and broadband, vendors like Nokia™ do not have the applications and systems for their broadband networks.

Finally, the Lab

In a year or so, Fortune™ or Forbes™ Magazine send a reporter to write up on the Enron Media Lab. What further proof can there be that Enron has completed its movement from Old Economy to New Economy? He walks around, sees the routers, the computers, the video demonstrations, the rapid provisioning tools, the quality-of-service testbeds. That day Enron stock closes at 122-5/8. In the week following the publishing online of the article, Enron stock closes at 134-1/4. Just ask yourself why.

How It Really Works

The physical Enron Media Lab is a main facility provided by Rice University (presumably in Duncan Hall, where Computer Science and Electrical Engineering are located), with smaller satellite locations around campus for testing and prototype deployment. It constains Cisco core and edge routers, IP and optical measurement equipment of various sorts, Sun workstations and servers for testing, deployment and monitoring, and high-speed Ethernet and optical fiber cables and links. Enron's corporate logo will be prominent.

The intangible Enron Media Lab is the ideas people take with them after visiting: a high-technology company for the New Economy supporting great things, and working to do even greater things. That idea comes from the researchers in the lab who:

  • Take advantage of the structure provided by the Enron Media Lab, and move research from the lab to the field
  • Experiment with multimedia technologies, such as streaming and video-on-demand, using advanced bandwidth management equipment and the high-speed network connecting the students and the faculty
  • Demonstrate and deploy the reality of rapid provisioning and gigabit routing in the lab, and then in the field to satellites throughout campus

When you tour the Enron Media Lab, the things you see first are the physical: the structure, the equipment, the staff, the "blinking lights"[4]. Surounding you are various advanced traditional and optical routers, workstations and network monitoring tools. And you can't help but see Enron's corporate logo, or see the prominent words, Enron Media Lab.

While you are there, you see real working demonstrations and test deployments of IP QoS and platinum VPN services, rapid provisioning and resource reservation, dynamic web caching, multimedia streaming and video-on-demand, and distance learning. You can reexperience lectures, plays and performances from Rice University and it's sister campus in Bremen.

When you finish the tour, the things you remember most are the intangible: the brilliance of Rice, and the vision and vigor of Enron.

[1] 3rd-generation cell phone networks should run at 384kbs out doors and 2Mbs indoors. Typically, VHS-quality video at TV resolutions requires 1.7Mbs.

[2]Erricson has some nice pictures of what some 3rd-generation cell phones will be like. Think PalmPilot™ rather than portable handset.

[3]Students at Rice really did rotate William Marsh Rice's 2000-lb. statue 180°. Now that isn't something you see every day.

[4]It is important not to underestimate the imporance of a physical demonstration of high technology in helping people understand how things work, and why it benefits them.

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