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A long Editorial by Thomas (Bouncer) Blakely
2000-04-24 (updated: 2014-08-17) by
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Get some coffee, you're gonna need it.. Go to the bathroom while you're up, because this will be long, even for me. You have been warned. (LOL)

Folks, I'm Cisco Certified, and I work for an ISP. A few of you know that, but I state it again for those who don't, who might think I'm talking completely out of my derrier. I'm starting to wonder if the Cisco/Valve backed "PowerPlay" should be re-labled "MarketingPloy".

Here's what I'm going to do. As opposed to blindly assuming that everything Cisco does is good and light and made of fairy dust, I'm going to decipher some of their babble speak for you and explain what they're talking about in layman's terms.

First of all, the best explanation of who the players are and a good Q & A is here:

I'm going to C&P the relevant sections, and then give you my take on them. As always, your mileage may vary, but I do talk to Cisco a few times a week, every week. I go to quite a few of their engineering/sales seminars. I am not an enemy of Cisco at all, in fact I own CSCO stock. My job, is that of a Systems Integration Engineer, I'm one of the people who will have to make this work, and I'm starting to have serious reservations about it.

First off, I'm going to more or less ignore the gaming companies. For two reasons. One, they don't write or deal with network standards, and two, they're very much the backseat partner in this from everything I've seen.

Okay.. let's get on with this.

The Q and A's from the article are in quotes, my deciphering (for what it's worth) Has a lil "Asterisk O' Love" before it.

"1) What is PowerPlay?"

"PowerPlay is a set of standards and protocols for improving games and entertainment on the Internet. "

*Standards defined by who? What guarantee do I have that a Cisco defined "standard' is going to work on ANY other router type? None. This is an important point, boys and girls, There are half-a-dozen major manufacturers of routers, if this "standard" doesn't run on any one of them, it's going to create areas of the net where powerplay won't work.*

"2) Who is involved in PowerPlay?"

"Initially PowerPlay has been defined by Cisco, the leading supplier of Internet infrastructure, a leading US ISP, and Valve, creators of Half-Life. Over time, PowerPlay will become an open industry standard."

*Over time? How much time? The problem here, is that a standard has to be open from the get go. You don't have a proprietary standard and THEN release it to the IETF, IEEE etc, It has to come FROM them to BE a standard. They need about 3 years or so to look at it, tweak it, and change it and fight, bitch and scream at each other over it until they hammer something out and release it. THAT, is a standard. Not Cisco giving them a prepackaged Cisco router only solution.*

"3) Why did these companies get together?"

"When the Internet was originally conceived, it wasn't designed to deliver high quality consumer entertainment. As a result, developers have focused on mitigating the worst rather than optimizing for the best. In order to bring about the necessary changes in the Internet to allow for great consumer experiences, it became clear to the three companies that a coordinated solution between content developers, service providers, and infrastructure manufacturers was necessary."


"4) How does it work?"

"The initial focus of PowerPlay is on Quality of Service (QOS). There are a wide variety of protocol and deployment issues related to improving QOS. Valve brought experience and technology related to client applications design, our ISP partner addressed deployment issues, and Cisco addressed router and access concentrator issues."

*Oh boy! QoS! Well! That will just make everything peachy keen! Oh waitaminute, no it bloody well won't, and here's why:

QoS is a primary Cisco marketing tool. Which will work on certain Cisco routers, everyone else can go blow. QoS comes out of Voice over IP, which is very INTOLERANT of delay, packets arriving out of order. This is also known as latency, or ...lag. Sound familiar?

QOS can be thought of like this. Traffic A, in any Queue waiting to be routed, will ALWAYS be sent first, in order to maintain QoS, which might be based on the type of traffic (like voice), the priority level of the customer (someone who paid to be first in line), application, or other traffic shaping considerations. It actually works well for voice, but there's a problem that we'll get back to. Here's a hint though: Only one person can be at the front of the line at any given time. *

"5) What's the result?"

"Users who have a PowerPlay enabled system will have a dramatically better entertainment experience. Problems with lag, packet loss, jerky play and so on will dramatically be reduced. Basically PowerPlay brings the quality of LAN play to the Internet."

*Let's change that to:

People using an end-to-end Cisco only router solution will experience less latency or lag, because their gaming packet will be sent first out of the Queue, and other types of traffic will experience increased delay.*

"6) How will PowerPlay be rolled out?"

*Official Answer skipped because it's not really important and is a really long statement about deployment.

Short version: Modems first, everyone else later.

Longer version if you really must know:

Cisco probably plans on deploying this in a small scale way via one ISP for dial-up users first. The most likely way to do this is by using the Type of Service (ToS) or IP Precedence field in the packet header. ToS has actually been around for awhile, it's just not used much right now.

Here's a good definition I wish I had written of IP Precedence/ToS:

"A 3-bit value in the IP packet header meant to designate the relative priority of a packet, applied on a host, access router or gateway, then used by core routers. Values range from 0 to 7, but typically 6 and 7 are not used by applications, since network control messages use these. For example, a brokerage firm might assign a higher IP Precedence/CBQ value to real-time stock trades than to e-mail to ensure that the trading gets expedited delivery."

This sounds a LOT like what Cisco/Valve are doing. That's probably not too coincidental, since this is probably the fastest way for Cisco to try and implement Powerplay. It's part of a pre-existing IEEE 802.1p standard, which was approved back in February of 2000, right around the time "Powerplay" started being heard of. Whatta coincidence! And look, there's a flying pig too!*

"7) Is this just for games?"

"Games are probably the most demanding application, but other applications such as voice or streaming video will benefit from the issues addressed by PowerPlay. For example, bandwidth reservation, which will be addressed in PowerPlay 2.0, is applicable to a wide variety of Internet communications and entertainment applications."

*That, folks, is QoS in a nutshell. Call it "PowerPlay", or "CiscoOnlyPlay", or "ProprietaryPlay" if you want. It's pure Cisco marketing. It's a Cisco tool, running on some Cisco routers, (not all support it) and it's traffic shaping via QoS. Period.*

"8) Why is the Internet important for entertainment?"

(official answer skipped)

*Because it's closer than the movie theater and cheaper too. NEXT!

Look, here's the quote from Cisco marketing: "As the market leader in remote access equipment-the point of contact where a gamer first touches the Internet-Cisco has tremendous opportunity to improve a gamer's dial-up connection. But to achieve maximum improvement, the game itself, the network it is deployed on and the dial-up connection have to be optimized. Gamers get the best possible Internet gaming experience with PowerPlay because it combines Cisco's key enhancements with those of Valve and our service provider customers."

-Mathew Lodge, Mgr, Product Marketing

*So, if you buy Cisco gear end to end, (cha-ching!) have a bunch of people configure a number of routers (cha-ching!), Go back and deal with all the misconfigurations, people forgetting to save the config changes etc, etc (cha-ching!), and implement QoS and you can have faster gaming.

Here's the real problem though:

you're going to start to hear screaming from all the people trying to watch live video and run voice over IP, or use any streaming media. But hey, they can always buy a higher QoS than you (CHA-CHING!) which case, you're back to where you started from. Well poop. This is sounding a bit less than th Holy Grail of solutions we got from the Cisco/Valve people! All I can say, is welcome to the real world.

NOW, mind you, IF the software companies can optimize the netcode to run on say, an ATM sized format, with fixed length cells, then that might show some improvement across the board for everyone regardless of their system. And you betcha ATM is very suited to low latency applications. OTOH, just to make things more annoying, ATM isn't as suited to downloading, because of it's fixed byte length. It's also no where near as widely deployed yet as other types, and would require new equipment to implement. Which I'm sure Cisco would love to sell you. (Cha-Ching!) It's a good side / bad side issue.

In the end, I want to say very clearly that I'm not against Cisco, or any solution that speeds up the gaming experience; however, I do not want people to pin their hopes for a free boost to their speeds on this. Because the way *I* see it shaking out, and this is just a guess, more or less, is that some services WILL switch over, and start using this as a marketing point.

HOWEVER, your main line corporate backbones (upon which the majority of the internet runs, like it or not), are NOT going to invest in new gear just to help the gaming of someone thousands of miles away. IF, OTOH, it's a STANDARD, then they're more likely to become compatible, for their own internal and marketing reasons, and because they can then adapt the standard in their own way for their own uses.

Some of you may have heard of the upcoming netcode release from Valve for Half-Life and related games. From everything I've read, this has to do with the amount and types of information sent, and is not related in any way to switching or routing technologies. In short, it has squat all to do with PowerPlay. I have a feeling though, that Cisco/Valve are playing it smart, and that somehow the new, smaller, update netcode for Half-Life and TF2 is going to magically become part of "PowerPlay" marketing, even though functionally, it has nothing to do with the way packets are routed.

In sum:

Cisco is trying to use it's market presence and power to create an exploitable niche so that it can move more Cisco product. That's really all that's going on. Verrrrrrrry slick. I should go buy some more CSCO stock before this stuff goes public.

As always, your mileage may vary, and if anyone has any RFC's or white papers on this I'd love to take a look at them.*


Thomas (Bouncer) Blakely, CCNA, CCDA

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