There are numerous human languages in the world. Some say the number easily exceeds 5000. Others say it is closer to 7000. Some languages are used in multiple countries and sometimes multiple languages co-exist in one country. Some people speak more than one language and they can translate from one language to another. It is especially essential to have someone (or something) that can translate between multiple languages when people who speak different languages want to communicate each other.
Now, let’s take a look at the world of network of devices. There are still many unknowns about how this new era of “network of devices” will play out, but one thing is for sure. As of today, there are multiple languages (i.e. communication protocols and standards) co-existing to enable devices to talk to each other.
These divergent communication protocols and standards are both a curse and blessing for the industry. A curse because not all devices can talk to each other although they have the ability to talk (i.e. equipped with a communication port such as a radio), but also a blessing because different communication protocols make it possible to do unique things that one protocol may not be able to do. Regardless of whether it is a blessing or curse, it is certainly the reality that multiple communication protocols exist today. Just to name a few, there are MeshScape , Zigbee, Z-wave, and WirelessHART, however; there are probably more than 20 different wireless mesh protocols used in the field as of today.
Why are there so many communication protocols for “network of devices”? These protocols evolved from many different sources. Some of them began through an agreement between multiple companies to make a “designed-by-committee” type of technology. Some of them started as proprietary protocols used by multiple partners or customers and some of them were developed to address more advanced and demanding requirements than others.
It is due to the fact that there are so many different types of applications and requirements that it is virtually impossible for one network protocol to satisfy them all. Naturally, multiple protocols have evolved in wireless mesh network over the last decades to satisfy distinctive applications. Some were focused on specific applications from the beginning, and others did not have a focus and still tried to satisfy all the requirements of various applications (e.g. Zigbee). A lot of these so-called “standards” (most of them are called “standards” although they are really proprietary technologies not usually named as standards) were touted to be able to cover most of applications with one technology, and there were efforts to end the use of other protocols as each of them wanted to the “The One” in the world of the wireless mesh network.
Now, fast forward to today. I attended a conference last week and I was glad to see many people trying to work together rather than destroy each other’s technologies. There was a big discussion about the role of the “gateway” in home automation as the first point of interoperability. This makes perfect sense as there are already many consumer devices on the market based on multiple wireless protocols. It seems that the developers of these multiple protocols finally realize that if they work together, they will most likely all survive in the market one way or another by fulfilling requirements for different applications. With a gateway that can speak multiple network protocols, like a person who can speak multiple languages, network devices will be able to talk to each other and co-exist. What a beautiful world it will be!
That said, there is still one unresolved issue. Even if the gateway can speak to different devices in multiple languages, for example, MeshScape, Zigbee, Z-wave, etc., there will still be a need for one language to speak to the outside world. More importantly, it is critical for the gateway to make all of the devices appear as though they are speaking the same language to the outside world, so that the outside world does not need to be able to speak different languages (i.e. network protocols) to communicate with different devices in the network. The gateway must speak a language that can be the common denominator of all devices.
What can this “common denominator” be? There may be some arguments here, but I believe it will be most likely IP (Internet Protocol). The bulk of the “outside world” of the gateway is already speaking IP as the common language. Why shouldn’t the gateway use it as the common descriptor for devices in the network? People always prefer something they are already familiar with and the whole world is already familiar with IP, therefore I don’t think it will be difficult to understand why IP is the best candidate for the common denominator in the world of the network of devices.