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IoT Standards: Many, Not One

Without common adopted standards, IoT endpoint interoperability and support will be fragmented, so here’s a standards breakdown to serve as a guide.

If the Internet of Things (IoT) is to work, we need standards. As one pundit put it years ago, "I like standards; there are so many to choose from." This seems to be the state of IoT standards.

Standards focusing on the network protocols will probably be those already in place, OSI layers 1 and 2. It is the layers above 1 and 2, including the applications, that will be important. Without common adopted standards, IoT endpoint interoperability and support will be fragmented.

The worst case could evolve where the application layer ends up being vendor proprietary, not standard. Proprietary solutions often lead to scenarios where you have competing solutions addressing the same problem. Even if a standard is adopted, there is the necessity of certification.

Defining a Standard
The development of IoT leads to technical standards. A technical standard is an established requirement and/or agreed upon options in regard to technical systems. It is a formal document that establishes uniform technical criteria, methods, processes, procedures, and protocols. The adoption of a standard produces interoperability, compatibility, safety, repeatability, and/or quality.

We use standard protocols in networks. Unfortunately, sometimes vendors use the term standard to present their products or services, but are really presenting de facto standards that many organizations have adopted but are not formalized by a standards body such as the IEEE, ANSI, ITU, and many others. Standards usually lead to the commoditization of products and services; when something is commoditized, the competition devolves into price, and sometimes quality, competition.

Standards Organizations
Not all of the standards bodies are pursuing all the OSI layers for IoT. Some deal with layers 1 and 2. For them, IoT endpoints are just endpoints like any other. So layer 1 and 2 standards can be used by a wide range endpoints outside of the IoT environment. Layers 3, 4, 5, and 6 are pursued by other standard groups, some of whom are focusing on IoT, and application layer 7 is the interest of specific IoT standards groups. Here is a standards breakdown:

ZigBee Alliance
ZigBee 3.0 is a specification used to create personal area networks (PAN) that supports low-power digital radios. ZigBee is based on an IEEE 802.15 wireless LAN standard that specifies transmission distances to 10–100 meters line-of-sight. ZigBee endpoints are usually powered by batteries that have a long life (months to years) because of the endpoints' low power consumption.

The lower two OSI layers are defined by the IEEE standard. The ZigBee Alliance embraces the middle four layers. The top application layer can be defined by the ZigBee Alliance or a vendor producing a proprietary solution. The drawback to ZigBee is the number of different implementations making product interoperability problematic.

AllSeen Alliance
The AllSeen Alliance framework is initially based on the AllJoyn open source project, and thus will be expanded with contributions from member companies and the open source community. Products, applications, and services created with the AllJoyn open source project can communicate over various transport layers without the need for Internet access. The software will continue to be openly available for developers to download, and it runs on platforms such as Linux and Linux-based Android, iOS, and Windows.

The framework consists of a code base of various modular services that produce activities such as discovery of adjacent devices, pairing, message routing, and security. The cross platform nature of the open source codebase ensures interoperability among even the most basic devices and systems.

This is a LAN wireless technology that uses 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz radio. It is widely deployed in both enterprise and consumer locations. It is the implementation of the IEEE 802.11 standards, 802.11 a, b, g, n for layers 1 and 2. Wi-Fi is best applied to sending large amounts of data wirelessly between devices. Many IoT endpoints only require a low level of data throughput, and the bandwidth capabilities of Wi-Fi far exceed the requirements for the majority of IoT endpoints. If the Wi-Fi endpoint runs with batteries, then the batteries have to be recharged or replaced in days. Most Wi-Fi endpoints derive their power from PoE LAN switches, not batteries.

Bluetooth technology was introduced by Ericsson about 20 years ago for personal area networks (PAN). A Bluetooth PAN transmits data over the frequency band between 2.4 and 2.485 GHz. It supports shorter distances compared to Wi-Fi and operates with less power. Devices like phones, smartwatches, headsets, speakers, and computers can be paired together. Bluetooth v4.0 delivers the ability to implement low-energy features that conserve power. Version 4.2 introduces three low energy updates to the specification: data packet length extensions, privacy upgrades, and secure connections. IoT endpoints can use Bluetooth, but the number of endpoints per network is small, less than a dozen. It also does not cover the higher layer functions.

This is a newcomer to the IoT wireless network world. Thread is the product of an alliance between Nest, Samsung, ARM, and four other companies. The Thread Group plans to provide rigorous testing, certification, and standards enforcement. Existing Thread specifications will be able to support a network of up to 250 devices. Thread uses the same radio technologies as ZigBee from the IEEE standard 802.15.4. Thread developers want to avoid what they see as the ZigBee problem of fractured standards by requiring a certification program or products.

Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC)
The Open Interconnect Consortium has been founded by technology companies with the goal of defining the connectivity requirements and ensuring interoperability of the billions of IoT devices. It is composed of vendors that include Intel, Samsung Electronics, and Dell. The OIC plans a set of specifications to help devices locate each other and work together. These open-source standards are expected to cover device discovery, communication protocols, data exchange, and other functions. The OIC's first specification is expected in early 2015, with certified products following by the end of that year.

Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC)
GE, Cisco, IBM, Intel, and AT&T announced the IIC in March 2014 with a focus on enterprise, not consumer IoT. This group is not focused on creating standards, but instead will work with standards bodies to ensure technologies work together across business sectors. The goal is to foster coordination among industries with IoT and older M2M (machine-to-machine) technologies, most of which have been developed in relative isolation. This effort involves defining requirements for standards, developing reference architectures and creating test facilities. The membership has grown and now includes Microsoft, Samsung, and Huawei Technologies.

IEEE P2413
The IEEE has been in existence for decades, with working groups composed of engineers from vendors. The IEEE has formed a working group to produce some structure to the many IoT specifications being developed. It plans to turn the information from different IoT platforms into commonly understood data objects.

Competition or Harmony?
The real standards work will come at the applications level, since the networking standards will probably be those we already have for layers 1 and 2. The mid-level standards are up for grabs. The application level standards are the most difficult to complete since the application level relates to specific industry and function requirements.

There may be multiply industry groups participating at the application level, which could create anarchy until this all settles down. The lower level standards may harmonize, meaning there will be few standards to adopt. It is at the application level where we will probably see a great deal of competition, not cooperation.

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