Parth Kapadia
Parth Kapadia
Engineer & Entrepreneur

IoT Protocols are the pulse of data flow and platform engineering” 

– The Internet of Things – pretty much a simple phrase that describes a complex network of gadgets, protocols, and more buzz words. Although, what you really only need to understand is that the Internet of Things is the layer you see; a front-end view to a faceted technology stack. For instance, when you use a computer, you only need to know how to use it and not how it works. Lucky for us, the commonly used definition of IoT is the one that’s observed and not the one that’s installed under the hood.

Anyways, it includes a dozens of protocols and start-ups all vying for long term enterprise contracts. Let’s take a dive and look at some of the major protocols that underpin the Internet of Things:

1. Wifi

Let us start with the most basic protocol of all: WiFi. Even though, WiFi is more of a physical layer than a protocol, it still more or less forms the backbone of an interconnected you.

Today, WiFi isn’t only use to connect devices to the internet, but is now being used to have devices of the same architecture communicate over a common network. Even though, cybersecurity professionals claim this method of data transfer is insecure the IoT industry is a mess in terms of standards and protocols and there’s no set way for intercommunication. The Internet of Things was meant to be a network of connected devices, not separate closed-off islands. Although, WiFi Halow could serve to be that universal standard we have all been clamoring for.

Of course, for WiFi, you do need a powerful router with a strong signal wherever you wish to use IoT devices; else they won’t function reliably in areas with weak signals. Although, WiFi networks are probably the most vulnerable to cyber attacks.

Check out this diagram that explains xPico’s embedded WiFi IoT micro-controller:

2. Powerline Communication

Let’s face it: You probably have the same weak router your ISP gave you and aren’t willing to buy another router when your current one is perfectly fine for your needs. Or on the other hand, your walls are making it difficult for wireless signals to effectively reach every corner of your home. But at the same time, you also don’t want wires seen around all around your house. So what’s the best way to have a robust communication network without reinventing the wheel?

Using the wires your home came with…

A powerful, non-traditional protocol is called powerline communication. It is built on the idea of using your power infrastructure to communicate data through programmable logic controllers or PLCs. The power lines in your house already exist in every corner, so using them to communicate is a perfectly viable idea. There are already powerline adapter installers on the market that facilitate the process like the ones made by Greenvity. They typically tread each circuit in your house as a micro closed loop systems that utilizes a single plug one adapter in one room, and another adapter in another room. Both adapters exchange data over your power network.

A major driver for powerline communication for IoT helps eliminate latency issues and creates a backup for your wireless network that will probably sit on top of the existing electrical infrastructure in your home.

3. XMPP

You may already know the protocols mentioned above, but you probably don’t have any idea what XMPP is… I didn’t until I started doing homework what popular messaging platforms like Trelo used to integrate their massively successful cloud-pipe styled business models. Basically, XMPP allows for lightweight communication of data files written in XML.

You’d be surprised to know that XMPP was originally designed as the backbone for an instant messaging system, and only later was it adopted in Internet of Things, primarily because of the ease it offers in addressing a device on a network. Instead of building device to device communication, XMPP is used for device to people communication, or in other words, it is the edge devices that provide on demand tasks and services that are more customer facing.

Although, many developers have said that it’s not very efficient nor fast, which is why it is not used for device to device data exchanges. XMPP is an attractive open community based IoT standard without any proprietary groups or memberships needed.

This protocol has been around over over 10 years and has had some success when it comes to scaling product. 

4. MQTT

This protocol is used for device to device interactions and is touted as being the best by a company called PubNub. They are known to have a ton of real time app dev kits molded into one platform that carries the data for your internet connected devices.

It’s bandwidth is efficient and does not require much processing power, which is because it was originally made for satellites, which have very limited resources and thus don’t need power-hungry protocols.

A really cool application of PubNub and MQTT was recently piloted in Illinois create a smart-highway toll system and an associated mesh network.

MQTT’s standout feature is that the server pushes information to the client, rather than the client pulling data from the server. In this paradigm, the client subscribes to a topic and the server automatically sends information regarding that topic whenever it becomes available. A publisher/subscriber network is the millennial tech term that everyone is using…

MQTT is also super efficient during power blips because it can locally store data a short-term of data. During times interruptions of data flow, a small buffer of data packets can fill into a back-up cloud server and once the client comes back online, the buffer releases to the client. Basically, this protocol is great for power companies since the client wouldn’t have to repeatedly pull data from the server, therefore establishing less power consumption and decreased energy costs.

MQTT is one of the oldest but best solutions for plain old mesh-networking.

5. ZigBee

ZigBee, an IEEE standard, enables sort of a local network for IoT devices as it establishes the sharing of data between the devices connected to an access point. Although, one of ZigBee’s major limitations has been its’ range as it has a maximum of around 10-100 meters. A major positive though is that its’ mesh-nature allows you to extend the network to wherever you want as it can scale up to as many devices as you want. Its main advantage over other radio protocols like WiFi is that it is immensely scalable and that’s why it has been adopted by many smart meter OEMs – the ZigBee alliance has had deep roots within the utility space for over 25 years.

The devices talking zigbee themselves act as gateways and repeaters for data, which is why the network becomes as strong as the number of devices you have. Whereas with wireless radios, you need to separately buy repeaters to increase the range of your network, which could prove to be expensive, bulky, and ultimately responsible for your low speeds.

Another advantage of ZigBee over WiFi and Bluetooth is that it uses considerably less power to transmit and receive data. Control4 is one of the original smarthome companies that have stuck to ZigBee for many years of success. 

ZigBee-Utility-Home-Area-Network

6. Z-Wave

It is similar to Zigbee in that it is a network created especially for the low-power requirements of IoT devices, and is primarily meant for home automation purposes. It is mostly similar to Zigbee, right down to the fact that Z-Wave is a mesh networking M2M language. The end goal is that all of your IoT devices are interoperable and controllable from anywhere, which is exactly what Z-Wave sets out to do. When choosing a protocol for your IoT setup, you need to ensure that your devices are compatible, and Z-Wave is compatible with devices from a myriad of brands including Samsung, Honeywell, and Alarm.com. In fact, over 35 million Z-Wave compatible devices have been sold till now.

7. 6loWPAN

This protocol is basically a way to bring IPv6 networks to low-power IoT devices. The 6lowpan group has defined all the parameters (encapsulation, headers, etc) necessary to enable the transmission and retrieval of IPv6 data over IEE 802.15.4 networks. Although IPv6 is usually used to transport large amounts of data, 6lowpan is a way to optimize it to carrying the small amounts of data generated by IoT devices.

It fits right in environments where low-power low-bitrate communication protocols are needed, and the Internet of Things industry is one such environment.

8. ThreadOS

While 6lowpan is open and open-source, Thread, which is built on 6lowpan, is closed and closed-source. You may even need to pay up to view its specifications.  Using 6lowpan as its backbone, Thread is backed by a consortium of companies like Nest, Samsung , and ARM, which was recently bought by Softbank, that wants to make Thread the industry standard. Thread makes it easy to address devices using IPs, and the data transmitted over the network is encrypted. Plus, it is readily compatible with the cloud. If you ask me which one of these protocols has the best chance of becoming the industry standard a couple years ago, I would have probably hedged my bets on Thread, primarily because it was being backed by some of the biggest companies in the industry.

Freescale, Silicon labs, Yale security, and Big Ass Fans are just a few of the top IoT OEMs that are now switching over to thread based communication. Nest has also put out a ton of developer tools for new companies to take advantage of their deep knowledge base. 

thread

9. Bluetooth

When Bluetooth was first introduced in the early 90s, it was mainly being used to connect mobile phones to your computer so you could synch your music and contacts. Granted the original masked proprietary protocol, the bluetooth revolution has been taken to the next level because of companies like Apple and Samsung embedding it as the standard to must-have consumer electronics and by 2018, according to the Bluetooth special interest group, over 90% of all mobile phones manufactured will be equipped with bluetooth as a standard. 

Recent advancements through BLE 4.0 have added mesh-networking capabilities and have allowed OEMs to engineer a plethora of new connected wearable IoT devices.

Conclusion

As we can see, there are a myriad of protocols on the market when it comes to the Internet of Things. It will surely take a while for the market to stabilize and for all the players to choose the right industry standard.

While all standards are technically viable for IoT devices, having one standard reduces development costs, improves reliability, and ensures interoperability. In addition to the protocols, developers will be conditioned with software development kits that make selecting the protocol for your project even easier.

What is your favorite IoT Protocol? Why?

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