Internet of things definitions: A handy guide to essential IoT terms

IoT standards, protocols and technologies explained.

There’s an often-impenetrable alphabet soup of protocols, standards and technologies around the Internet of Things. Here’s our attempt to wipe away some of the fog, in the hopes of making the language of IoT just a little bit clearer.

6LoWPAN – Possibly the most tortured acronym of even this distinguished group, 6LoWPAN is “IPv6 over low-power personal area networks.” Sheesh. The idea is to placate people that say it’s not really the “Internet” of Things without Internet protocol, so it’s essentially the IPv6 version of Zigbee and Z-wave.

AMQP (Advanced Message Queuing Protocol) – AMQP is an open source standard that allows disparate applications to talk to each other across any network and from any device. AMQP is a part of numerous commercial middleware integration offerings, including Microsoft’s Windows Azure Service Bus, VMware’s RabbitMQ, and IBM’s MQlight. It was initially developed by the financial sector for fast M2M communication, but has begun to be used in IoT projects.

Bluetooth of various kinds (Blueteeth?) – There are two main forms of the ubiquitous Bluetooth wireless communication protocol used for IoT. The standard variety is used across great swathes of smart home gizmos, from connected refrigerators to shower speakers to door locks. Bluetooth Low Energy, often referred to simply as BLE, is a little bit more attractive for larger networks of constrained connected devices, since battery life is less of a limiting factor. Both formats got an update in December 2016 with Bluetooth 5, which expands the effective range of Bluetooth devices and boosts potential throughput.

Cellular data – It’s not the most power-efficient way to do things, obviously, but there are plenty of IoT deployments out there that use wireless data from the cellular carriers as their transport layer.

CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) – This is an Internet protocol designed for use with constrained devices, those without a lot of computing power. It’s a part of the official Internet Engineering Task Force’s standards, and as you’d imagine from the name, it works well with small-scale gizmos like digital signage and smart lighting.

DDS (Data Distribution Service) – It’s another middleware standard, like AMQP, this one created by the Object Management Group, a tech industry consortium dating back to 1989 aimed at creating distributed object-management standards. DDS uses a system of “topics” – types of information known by the system, like “boiler temperature” or “conveyor belt speed” – to provide information to other nodes that have “declared” an interest in a given topic, ideally obviating the need for complicated network programming.

HomeKit – HomeKit is Apple’s own-brand front-end and control apparatus for smart home devices. It’s got the usual Apple issue of only working particularly well when the important parts of the system are all Apple-made, which could prove annoying if you don’t already own an Apple TV or iPad, but it’s also got the concomitant Apple virtue of being simple to set up and use.

IoTivity – IoTivity is an open source project that’s trying to create a standard software layer for IoT device connectivity, backed by a bunch of the tech world’s heavy hitters, including Microsoft, Intel, Qualcomm, LG and Samsung. The project absorbed a group called the AllSeen Alliance, publishers of a rival standard called AllJoyn, in October 2016, and the two systems are mostly interoperable at this point.

JSON-LD (JavaScript Object Notation for Linked Data) – A lightweight outgrowth of the JSON file format intended to provide an easy way to move machine-readable data around a network of devices that might format their information differently.

LoRaWAN – LoRa refers to a proprietary wireless chip technology designed for use in low-power WAN implementation. LoRaWAN technology is similar to (and competes with) Sigfox, although the LoRa Alliance is a consortium of companies rather than a single corporation.

MQTT (MQ telemetry transport) – MQTT is a publish/subscribe messaging protocol, designed to be used in situations where the devices talking to each other have limited computing power or are connected by unreliable or delay-prone networks. It does what it’s supposed to do very well, but it’s hamstrung a bit by the fact that implementing tough security controls can be tricky and can undercut the lightweight nature of the protocol.

NFC (Near-field communication) – The lowest of low-power networks has been around for a long time and is unsurprisingly well-suited for use in IoT applications. Anything that can be placed close to what it’s supposed to interact with and doesn’t need to send or receive a great deal of information is a good fit for NFC.

Physical Web – The Physical Web is a Google-created concept that argues for “quick and seamless interactions with physical objects and locations.” It uses a protocol called Eddystone to broadcast links via Bluetooth Low Energy, with the idea being that you can simply walk up to a parking meter and feed it digitally or get information about a store by scanning its kiosk with your phone.

SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) – SCADA has been around since the days of mainframes, and outlines the earliest attempts at systematic computerized control over industrial, manufacturing and heavy transport applications. Older-generation SCADA networks are frequently highly insecure, having been designed for ease of use, rather than security.

Sigfox – Sigfox is both the shorthand for a proprietary, narrowband, low-power WAN technology and the name of the French company that makes it. The proprietary nature of the technology is unusual (though not unique) for the LPWAN space, but Sigfox’s business model is different than most other companies – the idea seems to be to act as a kind of IoT mobile operator, providing on-demand network coverage for anyone who wants to implement IoT.  

SMS – Yep, regular old text messages can be a perfectly acceptable communications medium for certain kinds of IoT devices, particularly those that are spread out across a large geographic area and have a certain amount of delay tolerance. Sweden-based pest control company Anticimex, for example, has smart traps that update the company about rodent activity through SMS.

Thread – Thread is a networking standard based on 6LoWPAN that was created by Google subsidiary Nest Labs, which you’ll doubtless remember for its Nest smart thermostat, arguably the first breakthrough smart home device. Since the summer of 2016, it’s been available to developers as OpenThread.

TR-069 (Technical Report 069) –This is a Broadband Forum specification document that outlines a protocol called CWMP designed to let users remotely configure and manage customer-premises equipment via an IP network. (“Consumer-premises equipment WAN Management Protocol,” for those keeping score at home.) It dates back to the earlier part of the century and was originally designed to help cable network operators manage gizmos like set-top boxes remotely.

Weave – Weave is Google and Nest’s software layer for smart homes. It’s designed with flexibility and security in mind, even for particularly constrained devices, and it’s based on Google’s existing Android platform. It’s also partially open source – Google has published what it calls “some of the core components” of Weave to GitHub.

Web Thing Model – This is the World Wide Web Consortium’s idea for a physical IoT framework, which, unsurprisingly, leverages existing web technology to connect devices, rather than relying on custom, non-web protocols.

XMPP (eXtensible Messaging and Presence Protocol) – A clear case of acronym abuse, XMPP began life as Jabber, an open source standard for chat clients that gained minor notoriety among players of certain online role-playing games. It has since become an IETF standard, with a vast range of extensions and implementations, many of which are aimed at core IoT functionality like discovery and provisioning.

Zigbee – Zigbee is a wireless-mesh networking protocol that boasts the rare combination of good battery life and decent security, thanks to built-in 128-bit encryption. That’s partially offset by a low maximum data rate and relatively short range, but there are plenty of constrained device applications for which it’s well-suited. It’s also an IEEE 802.15.4 standard, which provides a high degree of interoperability.

Z-wave – Like Zigbee, Z-wave is a low-power, short-range wireless network technology primarily used for applications like smart home devices. It’s standardized by the ITU.

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