Bluetooth rising

In a few years, we will see enterprise-grade Bluetooth infrastructure solutions along the lines of today’s Wi-Fi WLANs

Bluetooth rising

The Bluetooth logo.

Credit: Stephen Lawson

We are used to external developments driving progress in enterprise networking. An obvious example is the modern smartphone, born in the consumer market but now the primary client for enterprise WLANs.

Another is the move towards white-box networking, an extraordinary change in the way enterprises build data centers that would not have happened but for the activities of the big consumer internet companies.

So, it is natural to look to other markets for technologies that may become important in the enterprise over the next few years. In wireless, Bluetooth is the one to watch.

Bluetooth Low Energy: wireless technology of choice

Bluetooth has enjoyed an extraordinary rise since re-inventing itself with BLE (Bluetooth Low Energy, also called Bluetooth Smart and Bluetooth 4.0) in 2010. Its main benefits are very low-cost chips and very low power, enabling inexpensive battery-powered devices that run for years.

Virtually all phone-based indoor navigation apps rely on BLE in the form of beacons, whether Apple iBeacons or other variants. We see beacons in shopping malls, airports, stadiums—wherever there are dedicated venue navigation apps.

Similarly, wearables for fitness and health use BLE to communicate, either directly to apps on smartphones or via smartphones as gateways to the internet. Wearables can be thought of as personal IoT, and there’s a profusion of start-ups developing IoT devices for the consumer market. Their wireless technology of choice is BLE.

After these products become successful in the home, they will inevitably spill over into the enterprise. Familiar installation, ease of use, low cost—all these are essential to the consumer market and are difficult to resist when brought (not necessarily by the IT organization) to the workplace.

Problems BLE solves in the enterprise

What problems will BLE solve in the enterprise? Location is the obvious entry point.  As turn-by-turn navigation breaks into the enterprise, it is likely to rely on BLE beacons. Turn the BLE beacon around, attach it to a mobile object, and install BLE receivers at known points, and we have an asset-tracking infrastructure where tags last for years between battery changes.

No doubt we will also find uses for wearables in industry, healthcare and other vertical markets. And as other BLE-equipped devices from the consumer world make their way into the enterprise for facilities management, security, telemetry, and other purposes, there will be a need to connect them to the enterprise network.

The one component that has not yet emerged is an enterprise networking BLE gateway or hub. There is surely a need? Most BLE connections today are anchored on smartphones, ideal for personal networks but not for the enterprise. We can envisage infrastructure devices—similar to Wi-Fi access points—that are part of the corporate network, are deployed and coordinated throughout the building, and provide BLE beacons and communication services. As these BLE gateways emerge, the enterprise will be able to support all kinds of BLE devices.

The insurgency will echo the early days of Wi-Fi. Enjoying the benefits of consumer devices at home, employees want to bring them to work and will bypass the IT team. Where these BLE devices connect to a consumer BLE hub, the employee will bring one in and backhaul it over corporate ethernet—a rogue Bluetooth access point.

We know how to deal with rogues. Identifying them and educating users that they are insecure is only marginally successful. Electronic countermeasures work up to a point. But the best solution is to provide a better enterprise infrastructure so people don’t feel the need to bring their own.

And security will surely be a concern. Although the standards have progressed recently, today’s BLE devices seldom encrypt traffic, making them vulnerable to eavesdropping—albeit within the short range of the wireless signal and requiring complex equipment to follow the channel hopping. Also, authentication methods are not optimized for enterprises—there’s no 802.1X support, for instance. But as BLE infiltrates the enterprise, networking vendors will have to accept these inherent limitations and add a security envelope around the wireless system, augmenting authentication and limiting the scope of BLE devices while protecting gateways from unauthorized access.

Bluetooth 5

Meanwhile, the Bluetooth standards group is working on Bluetooth 5. While future features should always be discounted—standards sometimes flop—the signs are encouraging. Features include enough space in the beacons for full URLs, somewhat longer range, higher rates and meshing, possibly better battery life. These are all sensible extensions. Bluetooth has mojo.

The timescale is not predictable, but the trend is clear. Bluetooth has momentum in the market, and it’s backed up by progress in standards. It has a solid start as the technology for indoor location and navigation and for personal-area networking. And it’s the wireless technology of choice for consumer IoT, which will spawn new products applicable to the enterprise.

In a few years, we’ll see enterprise-grade Bluetooth infrastructure solutions along the lines of today’s Wi-Fi WLANs.

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