IoT standards battles could get messy

So many devices, so little time

IoT standards battles could get messy

As enterprises start to think about building Internet of Things (IoT) networks, the key question becomes: What’s happening on the standards front?

Without platforms and standards to guide the development of products and services, IoT could become a chaotic mess. Widely accepted standards and broad platforms are needed in three key areas:

  1. The instrumented devices themselves, which can include just about anything from smart city street lights to industrial controls to farm equipment.
  2. The network, which will probably be a combination of wired and wireless that brings IoT data back to a data center.
  3. And a system of alerts or analyses or some way to make the data actionable.

These systems need to work together in order for IoT to be useful for enterprises. While the IoT standards process is still in its infancy, there’s an increasing sense of urgency as the momentum behind IoT continues to build.

A survey of nearly 1,000 enterprises worldwide conducted by 451 Research from August to October 2016 shows that 71% of organizations are gathering data as part of IoT initiatives today. They expect to increase their IoT technology spending by 33% over the next 12 months, the study says.

A whopping 90% said they plan to increase IoT spending over the next 12 months, and 40% planned to increase IoT-related investments by 25% to 50% compared with 2016.

Standard operating procedure

So what’s going on with standards? Quite a bit, according to experts, although it might be a while before the dust settles and leading platforms emerge.

“Truthfully, right now I would characterize IoT standards activities as really messy,” says Mike Krell, lead IoT analyst at technology analyst firm Moor Insights and Strategy.

“The IoT is a huge landscape covering both new and old consumer and industrial applications,” Krell says. “Building a system from scratch is one thing, but trying to retrofit older systems and installations is something completely different. Standards that can encompass the needs of all these moving parts are very difficult, if not impossible, to develop.”

That doesn’t mean people aren’t trying. “The IoT is a work in progress,” adds Ian Grant, senior analyst at market intelligence and consulting firm GlobalData. “Given the complexity of the field, there are likely always going to be new standards to work on.”

In terms of mobile networking, the latest “hypefest” is 5G, Grant says, which is likely to see a split between support for applications that require high data transfer rates and low latency, and those that need low power consumption but wide area coverage.

“Most companies want a system that works for them, so the importance of standards is relative to how much data you need to exchange between systems and external partners,” Grant says. “If you don’t need to send data outside your firewall, you probably don’t care too much about standards, as long as the overall system works for you.”

There are a number of popular software platforms that address pieces of the IoT puzzle such as connected devices, wireless and wired networks and alerts or analysis to make the data actionable, Grant says.

Examples include the ThingWorx IoT platform from PTC; GE Predix, which is focused on the industrial IoT; and Cisco Jasper Control Center.

All three are available on hosted public cloud platforms from the major players such as Microsoft Azure, AWS and IBM Bluemix, and on telco-run platforms.

“Users mostly don’t care what platform it is, as long as it does the job,” Grant says, He predicts that whichever one has the most APIs might prove the most popular.

Connectivity standards

In addition to 5G, areas of focus in long-range IoT connectivity standards include LTE-NB and LTE-M, Krell says.

“The two LTE standards are built as an extension of the existing LTE infrastructure, while 5G is an entirely new thing,” Krell says. “For short-range connectivity, we have mostly extensions of existing standards like Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and ZigBee, but with added software options like Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF) and ZigBee's DotDot.”

OCF, which was formed when multiple consortia merged, is creating a specification and sponsoring an open source project at the application layer so that any connected device can talk to any other one.

OCF “is aiming to become the standard for device-to-device data communications in proximal networks like the home,” says Chris Steck, head of technical industry relations at Cisco’s Jasper business, which provides a cloud-based software platform for the IoT.

Intel is also involved in IoT, as a founding member of the OCF. In addition to a standard specification, OCF will also deliver data models to an open source project called IoTivity, hosted by the Linux Foundation, says Dipti Vachani, vice president, Internet of Things Group, Strategy and Technology at Intel.

The project provides a full reference implementation of the standard, as well as an OCF certification program to guarantee interoperability, Vachani says.

The goal of the OCF “is to provide the necessary interoperability middleware standard for all connected devices to be able to discover and communicate with one another regardless of manufacturer, operating system, chipset or physical transport,” Vachani says.

3GPP vs. LoRaWAN

Another standards effort is the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which is leading the mobile operators’ effort in IoT. The project unites seven telecommunications standard development organizations known as “organizational partners” and provides their members with a stable environment to produce the reports and specifications that define 3GPP technologies.

The project covers cellular telecommunications network technologies, including radio access, the core transport network, and service capabilities including security and quality of service.

Mike Krell, lead IoT analyst at technology analyst firm Moor Insights and Strategy

The specifications also provide hooks for non-radio access to the core network, and for interworking with Wi-Fi networks. The three technical specification groups in 3GPP are Radio Access Networks. Services & Systems Aspects and Core Network & Terminals.

The 3GPP effort has competition for low power, wide area networking (WAN) from the LoRa Alliance, which offers LoRaWAN, a low-power (WAN) specification intended for wireless battery operated objects in a regional, national or global network. LoRaWAN targets key requirements of IoT such as secure bi-directional communication, mobility and localization services.

The LoRaWAN specification provides seamless interoperability among smart things without the need for complex local installations, according to the alliance.

Machine to machine

One of the IoT standards efforts that’s gaining traction is the oneM2M alliance, which is developing technical specifications that address the need for a common M2M (machine-to-machine) Service Layer that can be readily embedded within hardware and software. It would be used to connect devices in the field with M2M application servers worldwide.

“There are a lot, in fact too many to list, of open source and proprietary technical standards-making initiatives at all levels—from silicon through networking to analytics—but many of them refer to the oneM2M architecture,” Grant says.

The oneM2M effort is a good example of how various standards development organizations are now focusing on where they can add the most value, Steck says.

“We’re starting to see a shift from the ‘one standard to rule them all’ mentality that has existed in the cloud platforms and standards that support the IoT, with various verticals adopting a combination of standards that works best to address a challenge in their specific industry,” Steck says.

OneM2M is helping facilitate data exchange between disparate devices and application servers, and will likely be adopted for use cases that require a lot of interworking, such as smart cities, Steck says.

“Industries likely won’t use a singular horizontal standard for IoT, but rather a set of standards selected from a group of competing standards by various verticals to best fit their industry need,” he adds.

Device to device

In the Industrial IoT space, connectivity protocol MQTT is being adopted for one-way, asynchronous device data communications sent to a remote service provider, Steck says. “MQTT is seen as a leading standard for device-to-device communications, which more closely resembles real-time communications via a ‘bus,’” he says.

Device management is one area where standards adoption is taking place slowly, Steck says. “But this is set to change over the next couple of years, with the release of OMA Lightweight M2M,” he says.

“System-on-Chip manufacturers and software-as-a-service providers alike have stressed the need for standardization” and some have already announced their support of the standard, according to Steck.

Industrial Internet

Another major IoT standards initiative is the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC).

“One of the IIC’s objectives is to identify and address ecosystem issues for deploying Industrial IoT,” Steck says. “They have produced reference architectures, which serve as resources for issues in the space, and test beds. Companies in the IIC come together in a trial environment to tackle use cases, and report back to the consortium on the challenges identified.”

With something as broad as IoT, it’s likely that universal standards and platforms adhered to by every user and covering all areas of IoT is not feasible.

“I can't honestly say that today we have standards being developed that let everything work together,” Krell says. “The types of items and goals are too many and varied. We are trying to find specific areas that we can bring to some level of consistency, so we can at least reduce the number of options.”

It’s doubtful that a general purpose, one-size-fits-all IoT environment is or ever was the goal, Grant adds. “But there will be interest groups that will want to share data and lower the cost of doing that,” he says. These include cities, healthcare institutions, transport and logistics operators, utilities, and others.

“And of course central and local governments have a deep interest in tracking people and things to improve services, budget correctly and other things,” Grant says. “Do they all need to share all their data with everyone? No. Besides, most countries have made it illegal to share personally identifiable data. So you are likely always going to have islands of IoT, and that might not be such a bad thing, especially from a network security point of view.”

What’s happening with IoT standards is similar to other standards efforts for emerging technologies.

“We are very early in the life of what we call the IoT,” Krell says. “I think that over time, as we see where real deployments are and where the bottlenecks are, we will have a better idea as to what needs to be standardized. That's a complicated way of saying that I don't think we are in danger yet until IoT becomes somewhat more mature.”

But those following the standards landscape understand the importance of creating guidelines for manufacturers and users of IoT technology.

“The IoT demands an architecture beyond what has evolved for the internet,” Vachani says. “The billions of new connected devices need to be able to discover and communicate with one another. Interoperability on a massive scale needs to be achieved.”

Violini is a freelance writer. He can be reached at

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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