Don’t get sidetracked: Connecting the residential IoE
July 24, 2014 by Greg Ennis, Wi-Fi Alliance
Recently we’ve seen growing enthusiasm and industry movement around the Internet of Everything (IoE) and the Internet of Things (or IoT), with several industry announcements and a fair amount of speculation about technology choices and fragmentation in this market. It’s important that we not allow all the hype to distract us from the technology and industry fundamentals already driving the smart home of today - and which will lie at the core of IoE. This is the first in a series of articles I’ll post that address some of those fundamentals.
What has been notably missing from the recent media discourse – because it’s obvious and non-controversial – is reference to Wi-Fi®. While nascent and maturing short range technologies battle for some kind of a role in the smart home, Wi-Fi is already there, nearly omnipresent as both internet access and the home’s network. IoE applications are a natural extension of Wi-Fi’s value in residential environments.
What kind of connectivity makes IoE compelling?
Let’s discuss the realities of a residential IoE configuration. Usually, it involves three communication paths:
- Between user and device
- Between devices and the cloud
- Among devices
Which of these is actually the most critical? Proponents of other technologies struggling for position within the residential IoE market would have us believe that the critical thing is for devices to communicate with other devices. Sometimes we see this with a “mesh” configuration, which is then touted as a failure-proof network.
There is no question that device-to-device communication is important – and Wi-Fi delivers connectivity among peer devices today. But device-to-device isn’t enough – the three connectivity modes together are required to realize the potential of IoE. The real “killer apps” in the smart home future also rely on user connectivity and cloud connectivity to work their magic. This is why we refer to this as the “Internet of Everything” instead of the “Internet of Things.” The user connects from a smartphone or via the cloud to monitor and control devices, which also connect to each other, either for reliability or for communication. One example: without cloud connectivity, and without connectivity to the user, the ability for door locks to communicate with other door locks is probably not very useful.
Warning: Detours ahead
To satisfy this requirement for three types of connectivity, nascent technologies angling to join Wi-Fi as a communications technology for residential IoE share a major shortcoming: each of them has to sidetrack data traffic – typically via an otherwise unnecessary piece of equipment – to reach the Wi-Fi network and the internet. Sometimes referred to as a gateway, bridge, or a border router, this extra equipment is necessary because otherwise these non-Wi-Fi devices cannot connect to the home’s existing Wi-Fi network or to the internet. This detour serves simply to enable the non-Wi-Fi devices to do what Wi-Fi devices do natively.
What’s more, this detour device must be installed prior to any IoE endpoint; that very first light bulb or door lock or thermostat that the user wants to install must be preceded by the user’s purchase and installation of the extra equipment. Contrast that with what you can do with a Wi-Fi-enabled light bulb, door lock, or thermostat.
It’s also worth noting that there is no guarantee of a single standard approach to some of these non-Wi-Fi networks. In the worst case scenario, a combination of proprietary and niche technologies will enter the market – further complicating deployment and limiting the overall potential of the residential IoE. Bottom line, consumers don’t want to install the equivalent of a full-blown wiring closet, replete with disparate “gateways”, to satisfy the various requirements of different IoE applications.
Not only is this unnecessary stepping stone device a nuisance because of its added cost and complexity, it introduces its own reliability issue. Don’t believe the hype about the purported reliability advantage of a mesh. Introducing a network detour adds a single point of failure, threatening to isolate the whole network of IoE devices from the cloud, since they have no way to connect independently. The “reliable” mesh could in fact be twice as prone to loss of internet connectivity as a pure Wi-Fi network.
It’s worth noting that a failure in the detour doesn’t just disconnect an entire home of IoE devices from the cloud – it also interrupts communication with the user, who uses a Wi-Fi smartphone, tablet, or computer to monitor and control devices.
Take the Direct route
There is simply no need for nonsensical detours in a Wi-Fi IoE configuration. Wi-Fi IoE devices can access the internet as naturally as the home’s other Wi-Fi devices. The user can monitor and control Wi-Fi IoE devices using the peer-to-peer capability of Wi-Fi Direct® if the internet is inaccessible, or if the home’s Wi-Fi router is down. This kind of direct user-to-device connectivity boosts even further Wi-Fi’s clear IoE reliability advantage over mesh. Naturally, Wi-Fi Direct can connect IoE devices to each other as well to supplement user and cloud connectivity.
There is really no reason to believe that Wi-Fi won’t satisfy a wide range of IoE connectivity requirements. Given its ubiquity in homes and in the devices people will want to use to monitor and control the smart home, Wi-Fi is the obvious choice for residential Internet of Everything. In my next post, I’ll talk about two other important topics that have also been swirling in the discourse: compatibility and security.
Greg Ennis is Vice President, Technology for Wi-Fi Alliance and was one of the original developers of the MAC protocol at the foundation of Wi-Fi technology.
Vice President, Technology
Greg has been active in the Wireless LAN industry since 1992. He was one of the original developers of the MAC protocol proposal that IEEE 802.11 adopted in 1993 as the foundation for the standard, and subsequently served as Technical Editor for the initial 802.11 specification. He has served as Technical Director of the Wi-Fi Alliance since the founding of the organization in 1999. Previously he served as chair of the IEEE 802.3 Broadband CSMA/CD Task Group, and has held development and engineering management positions at various companies in the communications industry. He has a Masters in Computer Engineering from Stanford University, and a Masters in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin.