Monday, September 14, 2009

All about the IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC) protocol

Back on Thursday September 10, I wrote (in a post entitled (empo-tuulwey) When broadband is not broad - the South African carrier pigeon story). The post, part of my "a tool is not a way of life" series, took the story about carrier pigeons being faster than ADSL in a South African test and extrapolated the lesson that

...we can bandy technical terms about - "broadband," "real-time," whatever - but to really understand whether a technology meets our needs, we have to do a deep dive. Perhaps a technology that will meet my needs in Ontario, California might not meet the needs of someone in Durban, South Africa - and vice versa.

I was obviously not the only person talking about the South African carrier pigeon story, and I thought that everything that could be said on the topic had already been said. But I learned something new (or, more accurately, something old) when reading Stan Schroeder's post in Mashable about the topic.

While interesting, this is not the first attempt at sending digital data via carrier pigeons; in fact, this type of data transfer has been defined (albeit humorously) as IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC). Here’s a bit of background on the story.

IPoAC was described in RFC 1149 (RFC, or Request for Comments, is a document describing some part of the inner workings of the Internet. In short, it’s a very technical FAQ for the entire Internet) by the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF); it was written by D. Waitzman and released on April 1st, 1990. The basic idea behind the “protocol” is strapping some kind of data medium (such as a memory card) on a carrier pigeon’s leg and sending it to a remote destination.

Here are excerpts from RFC 1149 itself:

Avian carriers can provide high delay, low throughput, and low altitude service. The connection topology is limited to a single point-to-point path for each carrier, used with standard carriers, but many carriers can be used without significant interference with each other, outside of early spring. This is because of the 3D ether space available to the carriers, in contrast to the 1D ether used by IEEE802.3. The carriers have an intrinsic collision avoidance system, which increases availability. Unlike some network technologies, such as packet radio, communication is not limited to line-of-sight distance. Connection oriented service is available in some cities, usually based upon a central hub topology....

Multiple types of service can be provided with a prioritized pecking order. An additional property is built-in worm detection and eradication.

In the Mashable post, Schroeder then notes that the protocol is not just a paper gathering dust somewhere. It has actually been implemented:

IPoAC was first “implemented” (meaning: they actually did it) by the Bergen Linux user group; they sent nine pigeons, each carrying a single ping over the destination of about three miles, but they received only four responses; quite a poor result.

Then, in 2004, a group of Israeli enthusiasts sent three homing pigeons to a destination about 100 kilometers away, with each carrying 20-22 memory cards. The total amount of data transfered was 4 GB, and it took the pigeons below 4 hours, on average, to transfer it.

Schroeder then notes that the South African test is yet another implementation of the protocol. Perhaps RFC 1149 is not as widely used as some other protocols, but it does appear to be a proven standard under certain circumstances.

Well, provided that a cat doesn't intervene.

P.S. For my previous comments on standards, see this post.

P.P.S. My LOLcat, above, was based upon Feverblue's original photo.
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