April 2014

Innovations in Comfort, Efficiency, and Safety Solutions.

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IoT Opens to Mobile Messaging Standards

the Direction is toward Open Standards

Therese Sullivan

Therese Sullivan,


Contributing Editor

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The automated buildings industry is fortunate to have seasoned leaders that understand Open Source ecosystems.  The history and future of OBIX, the generic web service interface for control systems, is a good example. I’m grateful for Toby Considine’s consistent and thorough reporting on OBIX  (open Building Information Exchange) as well as Ken Sinclair’s OBIX call to action. Ken emphasizes that, to make open source work, the community needs to constantly contribute energy and remain vigilant to counter any forces working against openness. Coexisting with OBIX web standard, there is another open standard effort underway for the mobile messaging layer that the buildings industry should know  about:  MQTT (Message Queueing Telemetry Transport). When you consider the use of such messaging protocols in today’s news-making connected car, connected health, connected home solutions, it’s clear that the ‘Internet of Things’ is a contradiction in terms. Things are not actually communicating on the TCP/IP-defined Internet; they are messaging each other on mobile M2M networks.

While a web-centric standard like OBIX defines how to send requests to a known source identified by an IP address via TCP/IP communications over Ethernet, an M2M messaging protocol like MQTT needs to accommodate broadcasting one-to-many, listening for responses back from unknown sources, and relying on the sometimes intermittent service of wireless networks.  Mobile messaging works for small-device communications, like sensor events, where the data packet size is small, but potential volume of sends and receives high. It is a lightweight protocol that can function on top of the TCP/IP protocol.  To quantify the meaning of lightweight, MQTT is said to be 93X faster, 8X less overhead, 170X less battery to receive on mobile networks versus HTTPS.  MQTT was originally developed by IBM, but in November 2011 IBM contributed all the code to the open Eclipse Paho (C, Java, JavaScript, et al.) Project. The Eclipse Foundation is an open source community providing the building blocks that will lead to an open and interoperable Internet of Things. In this landscape of The Internet of Things prepared by IoT market investor and reporter, Matt Turck, MQTT is listed as a Protocol Building Block along with Wi-Fi, Zigbee, RFID, Bluetooth and other familiar names. While there are other M2M messaging protocols supported by the Eclipse Foundation, MQTT has the greatest traction for sensor networks and the Internet of Things.

MQTT is designed for publisher/subscriber or Pub/Sub communications. To cite a big-name example, Facebook Messenger is based on MQTT.  So when your teen uses her smart phone to Facebook-message out  “My soccer team just won!,” she’s the publisher. All friends that get that message on their Facebook Mobile App-equipped phones - or even those at home on their PCs with their Facebook application open - are the ‘subscribers.’ Any one or number of those parties may then message back, “Great! Meet you for ice cream.”  And the messages fly back and forth among tens or hundreds of connections playing the roles of publisher/subscriber, ad infinitum. Rick Huijbregts wrote a prophetic post in July of 2012: My Building Tweets and has Friends on Facebook.  While the coming social-media-ization of buildings that he predicts is certainly coming to pass, the Pub/Sub-MQTT style of communication that supports it may have an even more profound impact on building automation.

The collective energy of its open source community has advanced MQTT in other ways too. To help manage wireless network risks, MQTT supports QoS (quality of service) levels like ‘fire and forget” “delivered at least once,” “delivered exactly once.”  For security, MQTT brokers can enforce username and password authentication from clients to connect. To ensure privacy, the TCP connection may be encrypted with SSL/TLS. The big names in big data want a stable and widely supported MQTT standard so they can build their own IoT platform on top.  IBM is working with big chip and module manufacturers on built-in support for IoT MQTT protocol and IBM IoT Cloud which is rolling out on IBM Softlayer cloud. SAP, Oracle and Microsoft Windows Azure are also Eclipse Foundation members with their own MQTT initiatives.

The Eclipse IoT community came together at EclipseCon2014 in mid-March, including a full day of M2M IoT sessions and a demo of the Eclipse SmartHome project. This project focuses on the the current lack of interoperability among connected-home products.  To date, you haven’t been able to program an action on one device — be it a digital thermostat, alarm system, advanced lighting control systems or smart phone — to be triggered by the status change of another. The Eclipse SmartHome project is all about standardizing the overarching automation logic. It is built on the open standards OSGi Alliance platform for Java-based software development - another open-source effort, like OBIX and MQTT, which has survived the test of time and benefitted from an open community ecosystem.

An MQTT extension is planned as the M2M communication channel for the Eclipse SmartHome project. You can imagine the Pub/Sub communications this will enable: a homeowner’s fitness wrist band publishes out the encrypted message “Gone to sleep.”  The subscribing alarm, lighting and HVAC systems get the message and adjust accordingly. When he wakes in the middle of the night for a trip to the kitchen or water closet, a presence sensor publishes “Up and moving” and the subscribing lighting system brightens all the right lights instantaneously. Then the mobile calendar App publishes a calculated wake-up time based on appointments and travel time factoring in traffic and weather. The subscribing HVAC system uses this to determine the right moment to initiate its warm-up cycle. Progress in this direction is happening fast, and, to paraphrase a quote from Toby Considine’s February OBIX column, “When App culture and App technology come to smart homes, Smart Energy Apps for commercial buildings won’t be far behind.”


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