Electronic Design

The “Internet Of Things” Build-Out Depends On Software

The Internet has made enormous leaps over the last 30 years, and the pace of change is continuing to accelerate. Antiquated IPv4 is giving way to IPv6 so every device on the Internet will have its own IP address. Machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is on the rise, enabling connected devices to exchange and act upon information without the direct involvement of end users. We are rapidly shifting to an app-driven world in which consumers can remotely monitor and control their home security, HVAC, and lighting systems with the touch of a smart phone or tablet.

Industry experts now expect the number of Internet-connected devices to top 15 billion nodes by 2015 and exceed 50 billion by 2020. This growing web of connected devices, known as the Internet of Things (IoT), includes smart phones, tablets, TVs, gaming consoles, home appliances, security systems, smart meters, personal medical devices, vending machines, and many other products and systems. In coming waves of IoT development, we’ll see the aggregation of connected devices into truly smart homes, smart factories, smart grids, and even smart cities.

Ultra-low-power microcontrollers, sub-gigahertz wireless ICs, ZigBee systems-on-chip (SoCs), and sensor networks form the backbone of the IoT. Until recent years, these components were not power efficient, robust, or small enough to meet the requirements of connected devices for the IoT. However, ultra-low-power silicon technology has advanced rapidly to enable the development of end points that can operate reliably for many years on battery power or even indefinitely on harvested energy.

We are now entering the next phase of the Internet ecosystem in which software will play an even larger role in the build-out of the IoT. While hardware provides the foundation for connectivity, application-layer software enables the underlying M2M interactions that ensure connected devices operate reliably regardless of the operating environment.

Software, Standards, And Tools

Software provides the key to differentiation in today’s competitive IoT market. Embedded developers can implement advanced functionality through “appcessories” and other software to make their products more compelling and beneficial to end users. For example, while it is helpful to be able to turn on a light remotely, it’s even more useful when the lighting system tells a user that an LED bulb needs replacing.

Software extends the range of autonomous control to further improve efficiency and convenience. With an intelligent wireless sensor network, a smart home could determine when no one is around and power down all electronic devices. Such a simple change of operation, multiplied over hundreds of millions of households, could save considerable energy.

With software’s central role in the IoT, interoperability and open standards have become equally important, enabling a multitude of devices to interact seamlessly. Pioneered by the global ZigBee Alliance, the ZigBee standard provides device manufacturers with a straightforward way to develop products capable of M2M communications. ZigBee standard profiles, such as ZigBee Smart Energy, ZigBee Home Automation, ZigBee Building Automation, and ZigBee Light Link, provide interoperable platforms to simplify the development of IoT applications for smart homes and commercial buildings, intelligent lighting control, smart meters, and in-home energy monitoring systems.

For the IoT to work efficiently, all connected devices must be able to interact seamlessly. Since no single wireless or wireline technology can efficiently address all applications across an entire network, the IoT will be based on a variety of standard and proprietary communication protocols.

Wi-Fi, for example, is an appropriate choice when high data rates are necessary to handle streaming audio or video. For low-bandwidth applications that do not require direct user interaction, 2.4-GHz ZigBee, sub-gigahertz and Bluetooth technologies provide low-power wireless links that are easily integrated into embedded systems. For simple point-to-point applications, such as garage door openers or applications like irrigation systems that require long-distance connectivity, using a sub-gigahertz radio is an optimal approach. If the application calls for bidirectional communication, security, or a mesh network topology with numerous connected devices, ZigBee offers a robust, secure solution that can scale to thousands of nodes.

Silicon Labs’ EmberZNet PRO protocol stack provides a ZigBee-compliant software solution that has been deployed in more wireless networking products than any other ZigBee stack. EmberZNet PRO offers enhancements for robustness and ease-of-use that maintain ZigBee compliance while giving developers an edge over standard ZigBee PRO feature set implementations, especially in larger networks and more challenging environments.

To help engineers bring their IoT devices to market faster, semiconductor suppliers also must offer a diverse range of advanced design tools, such as application libraries for accelerating the implementation of key functions, production-ready sample applications, firmware development tools, complete communication and radio stacks with built-in security, and simple demonstration applications that show, for example, how to connect a smart phone to a connected device over the Internet.

What’s Next

The value of connecting devices to the Internet and having them seamlessly communicate with each other without human intervention is no longer under debate. The IoT will continue to open new markets and drive new applications and opportunities across all industries, and there is no question about whether the IoT will happen given the rapid expansion of applications such as smart meters and smart home appliances. The IoT has become a tangible reality with commercially successful deployments across markets ranging from connected homes to green energy.

What many OEMs and their suppliers want to know is when the IoT is going to emerge from its infancy and achieve the critical mass necessary to support tens of billions of nodes. With the availability of advanced silicon technologies, sophisticated software and development tools necessary to create connected devices for the Internet of Things, the answer is now.

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