How to bring true interoperability to the Internet of Things

Multimode radios, software flexibility and hardware-based security allow IoT devices to work in concert in the home

How to bring true interoperability to the Internet of Things
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The Internet of Things (IoT) is an incredibly diverse space, encompassing a large variety of hardware form factors and software ecosystems unlike anything we have seen in technology. Smartwatches, connected cameras, drones, thermostats, voice-enabled speakers, smart appliances and more—they all live together within the IoT.

But the diversity and innovation that excites many IoT fans is a big challenge not just for manufacturers and developers, but also (and most importantly) consumers. Which technology options should be used when designing or deploying IoT devices? How do they keep up with updated or new operating systems? What about new software and connectivity technologies coming up? Those are just some of today’s challenges.

Having a single, unified communication and software framework for the IoT seems like an ideal solution, but the diverse and fast-paced nature of the IoT makes this utopia a big challenge. Diversity in the IoT is not something to be solved, but an aspect that must be embraced and managed.

3 elements of IoT interoperability

To address the challenges of device diversity in the IoT, tech professionals should focus on three elements: multimode radios, software flexibility and hardware-based security.

1. Multimode radios allow diverse IoT devices talk to each other

Wireless connectivity is at the center of the IoT. Multimode radios, which bring numerous wireless communication technologies into a single device, are a proven approach to address fragmentation in many technology areas. For example, any decent smartphone these days contains a cellular modem with support for seven radio interfaces, so whether it is connecting to an LTE, CDMA or GSM network, the phone just works—and it can connect with any other phone on any other cellular network.

The same multimode radio approach is suitable for the smart home. In a place where light bulbs and switches use ZigBee, speakers connect with Bluetooth, and TVs and thermostats communicate via Wi-Fi, devices capable of understanding and translating all these disparate wireless technologies will provide consumers with the most convenience and flexibility, as they can interoperate with different smart home ecosystems. This is important considering home devices and appliances are slowly and gradually being replaced, so different wireless technologies are expected to coexist in the home for a long time.

Home hubs enabled by multimode radios—such as routers and gateways supporting Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and 802.15.4-based technologies—can also support interoperability by acting as bridges across multiple ecosystems. For instance, the ZigBee light bulb and the Wi-Fi TV can talk to each other if both are connected to a multimode home router.

Ultimately, interworking across different radio technologies is critical to the success of many parts of the IoT. Users want simplicity, and if devices are too difficult to install, synchronize with each other, or connect to a network, the growth of the IoT will be limited. With multimode radio solutions, users don’t have to be concerned about all the different network types in their homes, making it easier for them to adopt connected products and services.

2. Software flexibility enables support for multiple protocols, connectivity frameworks and cloud services

Once IoT devices can connect with one another, most of the other required elements needed for interoperability can be addressed using software. Networking protocols such as ZigBee and OpenThread can be implemented in a networking stack once devices feature an 802.15.4 radio. Software implementations can also enable compatibility across connectivity frameworks, such as Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) and HomeKit, and provide integration with multiple cloud services, such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) IoT and Microsoft Azure IoT.

Using software to enable interoperability makes it easier for manufacturers to refine or add new features to their products without hardware redesigns. Devices in the field can also be upgraded to fix bugs or include new capabilities, helping to extend the life of IoT devices and reduce management or replacement costs.

Memory and processing power are critical considerations to enable software flexibility in IoT devices, and they need to be designed in so as not to limit what is possible to do via software. Manufacturers and developers must put attention to the memory capacity and compute capabilities of the components and devices they choose, with an aim to avoid bottlenecks in the interoperability features that can be delivered using software.

3. The need for hardware-based security

Using multiple radio technologies and flexible software capabilities to address fragmentation and diversity in the IoT comes with an important requirement—strong security at each node. Utilizing multiple wireless technologies within a device potentially exposes more points for malicious parties to sniff network traffic or inject unauthorized code.

While no connected system can be 100 percent end-to-end secure, hardware-based features can improve device protection in ways not possible with just software. Well-known hardware-based features such as secure boot and trusted execution environments can prevent unauthorized code execution, while wireless protocol security capabilities can protect data in transit. As part of an end-to-end security approach, hardware-based security now can provide a higher level of protection not just to IoT devices, but also help safeguard the network going up to the cloud.

Creating an interoperable, diverse and ever-expanding IoT

The variety of form factors and ecosystems in the IoT makes it both exciting and complex. While diversity of devices is a sign of active innovation, fragmentation is an enemy.

This tension is not new in technology, but the IoT takes it to new level. Interoperability will be a significant consideration for years to come, but with multimode radios, software flexibility, and hardware-based security, technology professionals now have the tools to address fragmentation challenges, enabling the creation of a new and enormous universe where connected devices can work in concert—the IoT.

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