PARC spin-out launches Kickstarter campaign to disrupt home networking market

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PowerCloud Systems, a company spun out of the famed PARC (Palo Alto Research Center)—birthplace of ethernet, laser printing, and the graphical user interface—aims to upend the consumer networking market with a new cloud-managed Wi-Fi router. The company launched a Kickstarter campaign on Tuesday to bring its new Skydog Home Network Package (funding through May 14) to market.

But PowerCloud’s executives promise this won’t be an Ouya-like, pay-us-to-beta-test experience. Skydog is a scaled-down version of a cloud-based networking solution that PowerCloud already sells to small and medium-sized enterprise customers, so they’re well beyond the R&D stage. In fact, PowerCloud’s president and CEO, Jeff Abramowitz, told me in a meeting last week that the system has been in beta testers’ hands since last November.

“We already have a robust Wi-Fi solution for the business market,” Abramowitz, “our aim is to provide the same visibility and control for home networks that we’ve developed for the enterprise market. When we researched the consumer networking market, we found that people are concerned about what their kids are doing online, first and foremost. They also want high-quality media streaming, and they want to be able to troubleshoot their own networks.”

Parental controls are the typical answer for controlling what kids can–and can’t–do online, and quality of service (QoS) is the conventional means of ensuring solid media-streaming experiences. But those solutions are rather blunt instruments because they reside in the router itself and impact every device connected to the router. If you want to prevent your children from visiting certain sites because you don’t think they’re age appropriate, for instance, no one else on the network can visit them, either. And if your QoS settings throttle downloads to preserve bandwidth for video streams, you’re going to be frustrated the next time you’re working at home and need to download a very large file.

The Skydog dashboard can display bandwidth consumption by user, by date, and by network zone.

With the Skydog system, once you’ve registered your home network in the cloud, you can not only divide your network into three distinct zones (home office, media room, and kitchen, for instance), you can also define different policies for each zone and for each user. So you can establish a rule that download traffic is always throttled for clients in the home theater zone, but never in the home office zone. The service can also shape traffic so that if one zone isn’t being used at all, its bandwidth can be made available to a client in another zone that needs it.

Parental controls

I’m typically not a big fan of parental controls, both because a determined teenager can usually outwit them and because I don’t like the notion of spying. But Skydog has the potential to win me over. The service lets you establish time limits for each day of the week as to how long a user can be on a specified website—Facebook or YouTube, for instance—and it will send you as the administrator a notification when that limit is exceeded. And Skydog can monitor user activity no matter which device they’re accessing the Internet with, be it a computer, tablet, or smartphone. The service can also prevent that user from visiting the site until their next quota becomes available. Since you can establish different rules for each user, parents remain free to use the Web however they’d like.

Skydog can monitor each user’s online time on every device they use to connect to the Internet.

You can also manage multiple home networks from the same user interface, which will be a boon to those of us who want to help our less tech-savvy parents get online. Once the router’s serial number is registered with the service, you can ship it to someone else. The first time they plug it in and connect it to the Internet, it will automatically download all the settings and policies you’ve assigned it. PowerCloud has developed an HTML 5-based user interface for mobile devices, so you can manage the router from a smartphone, tablet, or computer.

The hardware

Skydog’s hardware element consists of a dual-band 802.11n router with a 2-by-2 antenna array (to support a maximum link rate of 300 mbps on both the 2.4- and 5GHz frequency bands) and a five-port gigabit switch. The switch can also be managed, including assigning ports to specific zones.

Why not an 802.11ac router, I asked? “When we were in development,” said PowerCloud System’s VP of product marketing, Vivek Pathela, “we didn’t think 802.11ac was the best choice for our rollout.” Being a draft standard, it was decided the technology wasn’t sufficiently stable. “But there will be an AC solution down the road,” said Abramowitz.

The Skydog router will have a four-port gigabit Ethernet switch.

That’s assuming the Skydog project gets funded, of course. “Early bird” Kickstarter backers who pledge $79 will receive a Skydog home network package in May. Later backers can pledge $99 for one Skydog unit or $179 for two units from PowerCloud’s second production run.

Router manufacturers have so far had little success with cloud-based management solutions. Cisco’s ham-handed approach to user privacy famously blew up in that company’s face last year, a lesson that PowerCloud executives have duly noted. “Data will not be collected for the company’s use,” Abramowitz said. “We will store user data in the cloud, but this will be used to analyze data for the customer. We will have a very strict privacy policy.”

“Cisco offered a lot of discrete apps” for its Smart Wi-Fi product line, said Pathela. “Consumers don’t want an app for this and an app for that. They want a complete solution, and that’s what we will offer. We believe Skydog appeals to users keen to see innovation taking place beyond the specs of the router. With so many devices and sites being accessed at home, we find both early adopters and families valuing greater visibility and control of their connected home experience.”

Pricing Skydog at less than $100 is a wise move on PowerCloud’s part. The company is also smart to resist the temptation to squeeze a recurring revenue stream from the product by charging an annual subscription fee. Skydog’s cloud-management features are very powerful, but the router hardware itself is not state of the art.

My current favorite dual-band 802.11n router, the Asus RT-N66U, is outfitted with a 3-by-3 antenna array to deliver throughput of 450 mpbs on each band. It’s currently street-priced at $180. Western Digital, on the other hand, has discounted its My Net N900 router to just $125. The My N900 offers the same specs as the RT-N66U, but it didn’t benchmark as well.

Confidence level

PowerCloud has given itself 36 days to hit a modest funding target of $75,000. Skydog does cloud management better than any consumer networking product I’ve seen. If router enthusiasts embrace it, I think this product will be a hit.

Editor's note: This article was updated on April 10 with new photographs of the hardware, provided by PowerCloud Systems.

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