A Brief Intro to Key IoT Communication Protocols

by | Dec 16, 2019

One of the primary challenges of building IoT products is that we currently today live in the “primordial ooze” era of the Internet of Things. The technology is still evolving and defining itself. This makes selecting the most appropriate technology architecture and components for your product a non-trivial and risky task.

Where the primordial ooze challenge is most often pronounced is in selecting the right data protocols for your IoT product.

There are 8 layers of protocols in IoT products:
  1. Infrastructure
  2. Identification
  3. Comms / Transport
  4. Discovery
  5. Data Protocols
  6. Device Management
  7. Semantic
  8. Multi-layer Frameworks

The decisions of what protocols to use in each layer can have significant impact on the possible feature-set of your product, the integrations available to it, and its level of “future-proofing”.

Don’t get overwhelmed just yet. It turns out that many of these layers are wrapped together. The decision of what comms/transport protocol to follow often winds up deciding some of the other protocol layers as well. So we’ll take a deeper look at various Comms / Transport protocol options here.

BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy):
Most consumers are already familiar with Bluetooth Low Energy due to its ubiquity in smart phones and computers. BLE is a common option for IoT devices that need to interface with mobile phones. It’s pretty much table stakes for any smart home or wearable product to have BLE. There are also an increasing number of industrial applications that are using the longer range and increased security capability of Bluetooth 5.0.

All consumers are familiar with Wi-Fi and are used to seeing Wi-Fi networks in homes, offices, coffee shops, airports, etc. Wi-Fi is a common choice for IoT products that are going to operate indoors (or near indoors), have high data bandwidths, and won’t be leaving the premises where there are based. Many smart home products are WiFi. You’ll also see WiFi in some building management system (BMS) products, and smart city products.

Cellular comes in a few flavors. 2G and 3G cellular networks are the most widespread, but are being sunset and are typically poor choices for new IoT products. 4G/LTE connectivity have been the most common choice for cellular IoT products over the last few years. 5G networks are being rolled out now and will provide high-bandwidth, localized cellular connective in urban areas. Cellular is used for IoT products thats won’t have access to a local network (such as a WiFi network) or are mobile and will move over a wide area. Common applications for cellular IoT are asset tracking, agricultural products, wearable products, and industrial sensors..

Zigbee became widely used because it was one of the first reliable mesh networking protocols. IoT product developers choose Zigbee for products that require small amounts of data exchanged across multiple products within a contained area. The release of Zigbee 3.0 protocol in 2018 has brought a renewed life to Zigbee. Zigbee is most commonly seen in building management systems (BMS) products, and industrial sensor grids

LoRa (named after the phrase Long Range) provides a long-range, low power communication option suited for large networks over long distances. In contrast to the other protocols with are governed by consortiums, LoRa is a patented technology owned by the company Semtech. LoRa allows for low power communication over ranges of a mile or more, it also allows for mesh networking. Applications of sensors over a large, but contained, area are ideal applications for LoRa. LoRa is most commonly seen in agricultural IoT products, building management system (BMS) products, smart city products, and industrial asset tracking applications.

This list is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of communication & data transport options for IoT devices. However, a majority of new IoT devices developed today do incorporate at least one of the wireless communication options detailed above.
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