How InstaMesh® Was Created Overnight: The Tale of Joe Parks

How InstaMesh® Was Created Overnight: The Tale of Joe Parks

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The year is 2001. The 9/11 attacks have left the United States devastated and asking the question, “What now?” Rajant CEO Robert Schena was already working on the answers. His dream was to prevent failures of first responders’ networks and communication when they need it the most.

He started with last-mile communications. The “last-mile problem” refers to the issue of transporting data, internet access, or packages from a centralized location to an individual one. It is the most expensive part of delivery. Telephone companies were still using wires from central offices, but Schena saw the demand and potential for wireless networks. He set up a demonstration to show a telephone company that consumer-grade wireless tech with 802.11a protocol using 5GHz frequency bands could deliver last-mile coverage. When the equipment Schena purchased did not work, he reached out to colleagues Paul Hellhake and Joe Parks at ROI Computer Services, Inc.

When the technology was retested and the same results received, Hellhake and Parks decided to go to their local Circuit City store and purchase new consumer-grade wireless access points right off the shelf. They hooked up the access points back-to-back with Ethernet cables and spaced these units a quarter-mile away from each other. Hellhake and Parks were testing the idea that if you had enough access points, you could go the mile with consumer-grade wireless.

This demonstrated an entirely new concept. They intended to show one hop of 802.11a going the full mile. Instead, Hellhake and Parks demonstrated that by taking multiple hops through lower power equipment, you can make better use of the spectrum in the area, get higher speed, and provide continuous coverage along the entire route.

The customer at the demo was impressed. Hellhake and Parks wanted to create more units, but it turned out that the only reason they worked was because of a firmware bug on the units they purchased. The company eventually fixed the bug, preventing access to this capability. There were also other issues with the units, such as deploying them in a certain order, communication failure from a lost signal, and easy disruptions of signals.

After some searching, Hellhake and Parks found similar hardware that could operate with open-sourced firmware that allowed them to modify the coding to fit their needs. They started using Spanning Tree Protocol (STP) to prevent loops, but they still had a big problem. If anything interrupted the signal, the entire network would go down for 45 seconds while the tree would automatically rebuild itself. An open-sourced implementation of Rapid Spanning Tree Protocol (RSTP), which only takes eight seconds to rebuild after an interrupted signal, was not available, so they decided to write their own.

Parks was given the task of putting together a design document for how to implement RSTP. As he worked late into the night, he started researching the MANET project, which was an academic project to create mesh shaped networks instead of a tree shape. This had only been implemented at Layer 3.

Even though he was supposed to be working on Rapid Spanning Tree, Parks started brainstorming other ideas. He felt that the eight-second delay wasn’t good enough and that there were many things in the protocol that could be simplified. Suddenly, he was overcome with creativity and inspiration. Instead of going home, he created a whole new protocol from scratch. This new protocol would allow nodes to form a mesh, prevent loops, and operate at Layer 2 for simple deployment and ease of use. This became known as Rajant’s InstaMesh®.

Parks then pitched InstaMesh’s possibilities to those who were expecting a completely different product. Fortunately, Schena and Hellhake recognized its potential and brought the technology to Rajant. The rest, as they say, is history.

Today, the impact and future of InstaMesh and Rajant technology are still being developed further. Parks, a Senior Software Developer at Rajant, is often referred to internally as “The Father of InstaMesh.” He would love to see Rajant eventually fulfill their dream of supplying first-responders everywhere with the reliable wireless networks they need. 🖉