Last week Erion’s David Holder spoke at the immensely successful (and oversubscribed) IoT Scotland 2015 event in Edinburgh. His presentation covered the crucial, but often underrated, topic of IoT integration and standardisation. Interestingly many of the other speakers at this year’s event alluded to IoT standards demonstrating the increasing awareness of how important IoT standardisation is.
This following is a brief summary of the presentation, which can be found here.
IoT: Integration and Standardisation
Making your way through the “Fog”
There are a bewildering array of standards and even standards bodies relating to the Internet of Things (IoT). Choosing between the many competing standards requires a detailed knowledge of their characteristics, benefits and pitfalls. For those seeking to deploy IoT this is a daunting task.
Despite the difficulties, choosing appropriate standards is extremely important. Standards bring many benefits; interoperability, compatibility, functionality, flexibility, longevity, ease-of-use, maintainability and manageability. All of these factors have a direct or indirect impact on the bottom line. For example, IoT devices are often built into infrastructure that may have lifetimes stretching into years and decades. It is highly desirable that the standards will last over the same period and is particularly desirable that the risk of having to replace IoT infrastructure prematurely due to choosing a legacy standard is mitigated by choosing IoT standards with a long shelf life. Standards do not just affect capital costs. Choosing common, well-known and widely supported standards has an impact on your support staff’s ability to maintain and manage your IoT infrastructure on an ongoing basis.
Unfortunately, the huge number of standards and ironically the large number of standards bodies makes selecting the best for your IoT deployment extremely difficult.
The ideal set of standards would allow every device to talk to every other device directly (Device to Device communication), and allow each device to access and be accessed from the global Internet. In a perfect IoT world, there would be no need for intermediate systems to allow devices to talk to each other or to communicate with the Internet. A single standard would work across all networks and provide a unified platform for the widest range of IoT solutions.
Today’s reality is very different from the ideal. Current IoT systems are “Vertical Silos” with islands of devices using one standard or one vendor’s product that cannot communicate directly with each other or the Internet. These vertical silos often tie IoT solutions to a single type of network. For example, they may work on IEEE 802.15.4 (a common IoT radio standard) but they do not work over Bluetooth, WiFi or other radio technologies. Worse, if you need to integrate devices across different networks, standards or vendors then you are force to deploy “Upperware”, additional systems that provide a high-level way of bridging between the islands of IoT and the Internet.
Naturally, this is undesirable. Ideally, your IoT standards would allow all devices to talk to each other regardless of the network they are on and would allow them to communicate with the Internet. You would also like your IoT standards to fulfil all the other benefits of standards such as longevity and manageability. One set of standards that meets this description is the set of standards that underpins the global Internet. These protocol standards include the Internet Protocol (IP). IP is familiar to network managers, systems administrators and application developers alike. It is likely to be around for a very long time, just as the current Internet has been in existence for many decades already. It is specifically designed to work across many different network types and IP makes possible direct communication between all devices and the Internet.
The bad news is that the legacy version of the Internet Protocol (IPv4) that is in current use on many networks today is not suitable for IoT. The main reason for this is that IPv4 has run out of addresses. It has none available for current requirements never mind the tens of billions and maybe even trillions of IoT devices. Worse, the IPv4 Internet has only been kept going through the increased use of address sharing using techniques such as Network Address Translation (NAT) and Carrier Grade NAT (CGN). These techniques break exactly the functionality that we wish to use with the IoT. Specifically, NAT and CGN break the end-to-end connectivity that allows devices to talk directly to each other and the Internet. For these reasons, and others, IPv4 is not a solution, even though it has the characteristics that we need from a ubiquitous IoT standard.
Thankfully there is a long-term solution to the limitations of IPv4, that is the next version of the Internet Protocol; IPv6. IPv6 has a practically limitless number of addresses, it has no NAT or CGN to impeded connectivity, it performs better, works over all radio and network technologies, is well understood due to its widespread deployment and is expected to have a very very long life.
In addition, there is version of IPv6 that is specifically design for IoT devices. It is called 6LowPAN. 6LowPAN is an IPv6 standard for Low power and lossy networks (LLNs). 6LowPAN ticks all the boxes for an ideal IoT network standard. It works across many different radio and networking technologies providing a common protocol for IoT devices. It allows direct communication between devices and with the Internet. It uses technologies that are familiar to network managers, systems administrators and software developers and it is specifically designed to work in IoT networks.
Today IPv6 is widely implemented and available on the global internet. Nearly 100% of the Internet backbone supports IPv6. Over 50% of the major content providers in the world are IPv6 enabled. In many parts of the world, IPv6 is a standard feature of consumer and business broadband services. In the UK, broadband ISPs are eventually beginning to roll out IPv6. This is removing the final hurdle for the widespread use of IPv6 in the UK. Interestingly, when an end user has both IPv4 and IPv6 they find today that on average over 70% of their traffic is over IPv6. Better still, they benefit from the lower latency and the removal of IPv4 impedances such as NAT and CGN.
So where does this leave IoT standards? There are still a huge number of contenders, including large players such as Zigbee. Despite this, we are seeing a steady and increasing move to the use of 6LowPAN. A number of key products and technologies have adopted 6LowPAN. For example, Google’s Nest is based on a 6LowPAN solution called Thread. In addition, even Zigbee one of the largest pre-6LowPAN IoT players has announced Zigbee-IP that is 6LowPAN based. So overall, we are seeing an industry that is gradually showing a move to 6LowPAN or IPv6 based solutions. The enormous size of existing IoT deployments and investments means that it is likely to be some time before 6LowPAN becomes the clear winner, however we can be pretty confident be so eventually.
The implications are clear, whatever other constraints you may have on your choice of IoT technologies, and there are many, it is clear that you should ensure that you are prepared for IPv6 and 6LowPAN to play a significant role. Even if you have been forced to invest in other technologies because a 6LowPAN solution was not available, you should expect that in the long term you will need to deploy 6LowPAN as well or even migrate your current deployment to 6LowPAN.