Microsoft Backs ICE To Ease Realtime Communications

Microsoft is building ICE into upcoming versions of its MSN Messenger instant-messaging client and the fuller Communicator client, slated to arrive in the Office 12 time frame next fall. The ICE component also will flow into the stack of Xbox Live, Microsoft&'s online gaming console.

All of the deliverables will come at the application layer. No modifications will be needed for the current or future operating system, said Russell Bennett, program manager for Microsoft's Real Time Collaboration Group.

Currently, the lack of sufficient IP addresses for devices in various networks means that some devices within firewalls communicate using addresses that may not indicate their "real-world" address, Bennett said. Network Address Translations (NATs) arbitrarily assign IP addresses to the devices inside a company's firewall.

ICE, which Microsoft said is backed by Cisco Systems and a half-dozen as-yet-unnamed technology companies, launches in parallel with the Session Initiation Protocol (SIP), which typically kicks off any realtime messaging or VoIP communication.

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"It sends out an ICE discovery message, saying in essence: 'I'm about to set up a realtime media [session], but I need your help. I think my IP address is thus. Tell me if it looks like my IP is thus,&' " Bennett said.

This verification process puts the real IP address into media packet headers and assures that the realtime media flows to the right recipient. It relies on the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) draft standard for media traversal of NATs/firewalls, and the STUN and TURN protocols now before the IETF.

"Right now, you can instantly click on a videoconference within our Microsoft network, but the problem is getting outside it,” Bennett said. “You can't possibly guess which IP address a person is actually residing at. The devices rely on proxy servers to help the SIP message find its way, but the proxy server is not a NAT. There is no control; you cannot stop it."

For example, Bennett said, calls through the popular Skype VoIP service use proprietary signaling to talk to other Skype phones or gateways. Once the signal is set up and the media flows, Skype disguises its realtime traffic as HTTP packets and tunnels through the network. “It is insecure. It just looks like a lot of Web traffic," he said. Skype, recently acquired by eBay, couldn&'t be reached for comment.

Other companies could build ICE into their own stacks, turning NATs, firewalls and routers into ICE devices, Bennett said, adding that such retrofits would mean that millions of users wouldn&'t have to replace their routers. Devices running this component would be deemed as STUN/TURN servers and could be located anywhere, such as in the DMZ at the network's edge, and be discoverable by DNS lookup, he said.

Industry observers say Microsoft is almost as obsessed with Skype' s huge VoIP success as it is with that of Google, and other companies on other fronts. Some say Microsoft missed the boat on VoIP and is now rushing to catch up with its own VoIP-enabled client technologies.

IDC analyst Tom Valovic said this news could well relate to the competitive VoIP situation vis-a-vis Skype. This news is "very arguably" related to Skype as is Microsoft's recent acquisition of Mediastream, said Valovic, program director of IDC's VoIP Infrastructure unit.

"I think it's certainly possible to construe this as Microsoft addressing the excellent traction that Skype had garnered in businesses," he added.

This story was updated Thursday afternoon with analyst comment.