Connect the Dots: Pick Any IoT Standard, Just Make Sure It’s The Right One

Create: 05/30/2016 - 13:00

Developing, selecting and supporting IoT systems is hard as technologies are changing rapidly. Strong ecosystems and flexible hardware are emerging to make it a lot easier.

When a technology such as IoT is emerging there are arguments for and against standardization, but when the dust settles, the last place you want is to be on the wrong side of whatever standard does emerge. It can cost you financially to rework your system, as well as in terms of customer trust, as deployed systems risk becoming defunct.

The desire for standards to form quickly around IoT is understandable, especially in a connected world. Companies want to build systems and software that will be interoperable with other systems and software, for years to come. The fundamental building block of the IoT, universal IP addressing, is a case in point. We wouldn’t have the IoT without it.

However, while each dot on the IoT landscape will have an IP address, it’s not so clear how those dots connect to take advantage of that IP address. The discussion around standards comes into stark relief here. While Bluetooth, Bluetooth Smart, ZigBee, Wi-Fi, GSM/GPRS and LTE with its various categories are familiar, a whole new layer of less known wireless connectivity options have emerged over the past two or three years.

These new arrivals include LoRa, SigFox, Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT), wireless M-Bus and WiSense, for longer range, as well Z-Wave and KNX-RF for shorter-range communication. All claim some mix of differentiators, whether it be cost, low power, longer range, availability, ease of deployment, mesh networking or security, to mention just a few. Of course, the more established technologies aren’t standing still, adding mesh networking (Bluetooth) and IP capability (ZigBee).

Healthy, Diverse Ecosystems

All the variations and permutation scream for standardization, but that has a price. The argument is that if you standardize too early, you stifle innovation and competition. Standards expel those technologies that aren’t “anointed,” and often standards develop not around which solution is technically “better,” but form instead around which technology has the most financial or political backing, or better ecosystem.

The latter – the better ecosystem – is actually a pretty good reason to coalesce around a standard. The more companies, suppliers, users and developers in the ecosystem, the easier it is to get products to market and get the support you need, both as a system developer and as a user.

A good example of such an ecosystem is the Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF). This group formed as an open-source project and is creating a specification that will let any device communicate regardless of manufacturer, operating system or physical-layer transport. IoTivity is the Linux-based reference platform for the specification, and it can be downloaded for free.

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Ecosystems such the recently formed Open Connectivity Foundation, with founders that include Arris, Cisco, GE Digital, Intel®, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Samsung, are critical in that they provide assurance and support for IoT developers and providers of systems and solutions.

The participant companies are a who’s-who of tech, including Arris, Cisco, GE Digital, Intel®, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Samsung, just to name a few. No one wants to be left out in the cold, as many of these same companies are hedging their bets by participating in other IoT-specific ecosystems and standards bodies.

This idea of partaking in everything seems to be systemic, given how so much is changing so fast in this drive to IoTicize the globe. However, this approach can also be resource intensive and lead to a lack of focus, but these are still early days in the IoT.

We’re a far cry from the “winner takes all” Betamax (Sony) vs VHS (JVC) VCR format wars of the seventies. Remember those VCR tapes?  Those quaint rectangular plastic cartridges with magnetic tape that you had to insert into a bigger rectangular box that made lots of whirring and spinning noises? We now have stronger ecosystems, more modular and flexible hardware, and over-the-air software updates so that if things do change, odds are we can manage it.

One Chip; Five Wireless Protocols

During the past two years, so much has been written and debated about which of the new and old interfaces are best, that it was a much-welcomed surprise this week to see the Belgium-based Imec and Holst Centre announce a low-power, long-range, radio chip that caters to at least five – yes, you read that correctly, five – different protocols. It’s starting with IEEE 802.15.4g/k, Wireless M-Bus, KNX-RF, LoRA and SigFox, so obvious applications include smart city, metering, home and critical infrastructure monitoring.

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Imec and Holst Centre developed a sub-1-GHz radio that adds flexibility to system design and support decisions by supporting five popular wireless interface protocols.

The chip operates in the industrial, scientific and medical (ISM) and short-range devices (SRD) bands, covering the frequencies from 780 MHz to 930 MHz. The press release seems to indicate that it will also support NB-IoT when the 3GPP standardizes it in June.

There’s more to be said about standardization in the areas of specifications and data transport, but at a high level, being part of a strong ecosystem provides a level of business security. Odds are you’ll be supported for the long haul. At the system design level, having the flexibility to change your wireless interface pre- or post-deployment, brings enormous peace of mind.

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Patrick Mannion
Patrick Mannion is an independent writer and content consultant who has been working in, studying, and writing about engineering and technology for over 25 years.

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