Other than the FTL squirt routers integrated into the stargates themselves, the most important parts of the interstellar communications infrastructure – and before it the interplanetary communications infrastructure – are each system’s relay stations.

Customarily located above and below the acme and nadir poles of the system’s primary star, relays are statites, hanging in position from and stabilized by variable-geometry solar sails. This positioning at a sufficient distance above and below the ecliptic gives them the best possible line of sight on every object on the system: stargates, planetary geostat constellations, major drifts, and starships operating in the normal (i.e., along the ecliptic) traffic lanes, with the minor exception of the most epistellar of planets, coronal habitats, and other sun-hugging operations.

While for the most part, intra-system networking is done using standard mesh protocols, coordinated via shortest-link routing protocols based on current light-lag, occultation ephemerides, and traffic-control data, the relay stations’ positioning enables them to serve as the route of last resort for all backbone traffic in the system. In particular, they handle traffic between planets and drifts currently on opposite sides of the primary, and interstellar traffic without an endpoint in the system; i.e., stargate-to-stargate traffic. In these functions, both relays function as load-balanced peers, although scaled such that each is capable of handling the total expected load alone if necessary.

The relay stations also function as management points for the interplanetary mesh, and as such at least one is continuously manned by a site systems administrator, usually an infomorph.

– IIP Elucidated, Volume I: Perspectives


FAQ Followup

And we have a follow-up FAQ. Mark Atwood asks:

Follow up question: how compatible are various worlds and polities nanofacs and slurrys? Polities that are colonies of existing polities will likely use compatible slurries and facs, but independent invention and/or long-enough separation in time will lead incompatible tags, inline data packages, and physical designs of nano-scale cages and gripping points. I can see things getting Interesting on worlds that have to deal and trade across polities with different nano, and interesting issues when trade fleets and military fleets with incompatible nano have to interoperate.

The answer there would be: for the most part, if you think of it as Internet software, you won’t go far wrong.

Most of the Worlds runs nanofacturing protocols that are cross-compatible and function according to the Imperial Nanofacturing Standard V.Whatever, IOSS1 somenumber through IOSS someothernumber, for the same reason as most of the extranet runs over IIP2; namely, it may be an Imperial standard, but at least it’s an open standard, and more to the point, it’s an open standard with plenty of legitimate places to plug in extensions and submit them for inclusion.

Even more to the point than that, it’s one with a lot of weight behind its adoption, because:

First, starcorporation-wise, just as Bright Shadow is pretty clear to its customers that its backbone runs over IIP and if you want interoperability, you can run IIP or built your own network gateway protocol, companies like Llyn Standard Manufacturing and Traders in Ideation make it pretty clear that they publish recipes that conform to the IOSS, and if you want to have your own protocol-format for recipes, then translating their recipes to work with your supply chain isn’t their problem.

And second, there is a huge database of free-to-use recipes out there, and by far the vast majority of them are INS-formatted, for reasons including longevity of publishing, a thriving open-development culture, and patent/copyright law that dumps expired, no-longer-manufactured stuff straight into the public knowledge pool. That that’s out there is a huge incentive for most ‘fac manufacturers to build machines that are compatible with it.

This even encourages worlds that invented the technology independently to work towards compatibility, obviously, something that’s made easier on the ego by the people who come around shortly after First Contact looking to grab any particularly good ideas they had independently to put in the next revision of the standard. 🙂

That being said, this is just like TCP/IP stacks inasmuch as when it comes to the core functionality, everything is swell and interoperable, but life may get interesting when one wanders off into more obscure corners, especially when people have interpreted things creatively or cut a few corners here or there. The further you go from basic mechanosynthetic applications, especially where gray-market, low-end, or from Those Companies, You Know The Ones ‘facs are concerned, the more likely it is that you’re going to end up having to contact your friendly local ‘fac-hacker to patch around whatever it is the manufacturer screwed up. Indeed, if you’re on some dark ‘hab out at the ass-end of the Shadow Systems, you’re probably going to need to get that guy out to make anything compile at all on your home-made sort-of-compliant lash-up system.

This is the level of problem that tends to hit most of those trade fleets, and so forth.

Most of the serious incompatibility issues are entirely deliberate – people who specifically don’t want to have access to those things, for a variety of reasons, be it straightforward economic protectionism (which makes even less sense than usual when you have cornucopias, but no-one said those governments were smart), keeping out evil Impie cultural imperialism as reflected in their Stuff, and/or fighting the War on Hedonic Pharmaceuticals Or Whatever Other Damn Thing It Is This Month by trying to prevent their citizens from printing out designer drugs, mass-driver pistols, or whatever other locally proscribed widgets they can download freely off the extranet.

(…which in turn the Agalmic Praxis Foundation, the Free Fabrication Fraternity, et. al., cheerfully subvert by writing recipes to get incompatible ‘facs to print out the needed parts to assemble compatible ‘facs, and so it goes on…)

1. IOSS = Imperial Open Source Standard. Which is exactly what it says on the tin.

2. IIP = Imperial Interweave Protocol. Looks something like IPv6 on steroids, with added relativistics and light-lag extensions, and using 512-bit addressing3 to allow for conveniently addressing individual elements of nanite swarms, etc. (With currently reserved option to extend to 1024-bit addressing just in case future requirements include addressing across multiple universes.)

3. For anyone wondering, this gives you up to 10154 addresses, which may seem excessive in light of there only being maybe 1080 protons in the universe. Apart from letting you feel comfortable using sparse allocation, I suspect the main reason for this is that at some point in IIP development, the engineers said the equivalent of “Look, guys, we have powerful processors these days and the routers can handle it. Let’s make sure we never have to go through another renumbering ever again.”

Trope-a-Day: Everything Is Online

Everything Is Online: Played entirely straight, including just about every piece of technology you can think of – infrastructure, houses, vehicles, appliances, even the simplest packaging will have at least an identity-location-and-v-tag beacon on it – and including people’s brains (which is where your modern chap keeps his PDA); all hooked up using pervasive wireless mesh networking.  Only the most paranoid of organizations or those working with incredibly dangerous technologies air-gap their networks, because it’s so incredibly inconvenient in the modern world.

But then, IIP is different from IP inasmuch as it has security baked right in – it’s impossible to send or receive any traffic, for one thing, that’s not all duly certified and encrypted and authenticated – and many of the network managers, routers, security systems, and so forth are artificially intelligent and quite capable of running their own little panopticon, so while it’s not impossible to perform great feats of hacking using Everything Is Online, it’s a damn sight harder to do than our Internet might make it look.

And there generally are local overrides, just in case.

Sysadmins Wanted, Infomorphs Preferred

SYSADMINS WANTED, INFOMORPHS PREFERRED – Site systems administrators wanted to manage long-range extranet relay stations in the Expansion Regions. Infomorphs preferred, cybershells and bioshells accepted but must provide own IMS44 hab module and breathing gases if necessary. Companions accommodated at own expense. Skills required: IIP, extranet interchange routing, cloud servers, auton agent management, local-space mesh, including wireless EM and whisker-laser, metashl scripting, tangle, blacknet protocols, and interchange perimeter security (min. 6 wall-clock years live experience). Psych requirement: no to minimal negative isolation response. 2-year contract, pays 24k over standard for hardship/hazard, full backup cover and personal bandwidth allowance. Contact Litheia Elethandrion, Sophont Contracting, Outer Ring Netweavers, ICC.

Out of Order Transmission

…as every child learns, computing as we know it today originated with the invention of the Stannic cogitator.  Stane Vitremarvis-ith-Vidumarvis of Azikhan, working in the family business of manufacturing mechanical calculators and automata cores, was the first to make the conceptual breakthrough that in addition to accepting fixed programming, such automated devices could store and indeed dynamically modify programs in the same manner as they did data.  Thus were the first general-purpose computers built, ushering in the transition between the Low Steam Age and the later High Steam Age with the use of miniature Stannic cogitators to provide the required control mechanisms for the first true steam clanks (pre-electronic robots), and earning a second fortune for House Vitremarvis in the process.

This, however, is the history of networking.  The ability of computers to interconnect and communicate exponentially expands their capacity and usefulness, something which was clear from the earliest days of the field, but nonetheless, the development of networking had to wait until the availability of a suitable transmission medium.

While some short-range experiments were carried out in the early days using chains, shafts, belts, dedicated multi-mass ball-bearing races, and other mechanical interconnects between pairs of Stannic cogitators located close to each other, some with remarkable success, none of these mechanical means proved possible to make function reliably, or indeed at all, across distance.  Communication between distant devices required shipping the data using conventional transportation, in a frozen form – most commonly a stack of punched cards (stiff paper cards in which holes in specific locations represent the information, readable using a pin matrix), or a toggle chain (a standardized length and gauge of chain in which each link contains a two-position mechanical toggle, whose positions read from end to end represent a data string).  Some progress was also made in transmitting the contents of these media using automated heliography (although manual transcription was required at the receiving end; experiments in fully automated heliography were not being carried out until near the end of the High Steam Age).

The first true networks did not appear until the first relay-based computers came into use.  With the harnessing of electricity, it finally became possible for one machine to produce a signal, readily transmissible over long distances, which could automatically be read by a receiving machine.

While first used as dedicated machine-to-machine connections, a team working under Parváné Camriad-ith-Sereda devised what we know today as the forerunner of IIPv1, a set of protocols implemented in these early machines by dedicated hardware, which permitted multiple machines to share a single line and transmit any-to-any, with only the intended recipient receiving any given message; and also to break up messages in such a way that a long message would be transmitted in segments, such that other machine pairs could still partially utilize the communications line.  Later, his team added to this a mechanical interchange such that messages could be forwarded from one line to another by an intermediate hub, allowing messages to be passed over long distances without requiring all the machines in each location to be connected to a single communications line; the first true packet-switched network.

Parváné Camriad-ith-Sereda offered his demonstration to a number of entrepreneurs of the time, some few of which saw the potential in his shared-line system.  These went on to found Empire Telegnosis and Mechanical Messaging (a corporate forerunner of the modern Bright Shadow, ICC), which used Parváné’s shared-line system as the basis of a long-distance communication network to bind together many of the Empire’s major cities, and thus offer a versatile system to interconnect many of the commercial, scientific and governmental computers then in use.

It is a matter of some historical interest, unusual when technological development sequences are compared, that Eliera developed the data network so early in its history; this can be probably be attributed to the also-unusual early advancements in metallurgy and clockwork engineering that permitted the successful invention of the Stannic cogitator.  On most worlds, electronic computers are the first to be successfully constructed, and data networks tend to follow the invention of telegraphy and telephony.

By contrast, telegraphy on Eliéra was the product of various local initiatives (Cestia Lightning Mail, Azikhan Electromessaging, Roquentius & Co. Telescriptorium, et. al.) purchasing simple computers, little more than a cypherwheel and an interface, and having them interconnected by ET&MM for the dedicated purpose of sending and receiving sophont-to-sophont messages at high speed.  Likewise, telephony was a latecomer to the Eliéran scene – reaching many regions after most homes already contained their own “telegraphic terminal” – based on dedicated voice lines using the existing data network as an out-of-band control channel.

IIPv1 itself was a product of…

– IIP Elucidated, Volume I: Perspectives