The Internet of Things sector is increasingly focused on Internet Protocol networks for connecting devices such as intelligent LED luminaires, and the ZigBee Alliance is moving to establish its value at the application layer of the network stack.
The ZigBee Alliance and the Thread Group have announced successful demonstrations of Thread-based Internet of Things (IoT) wireless networks connecting smart devices that run what the ZigBee group is now calling the ZigBee universal language. In the past, the ZigBee Alliance has championed its own full network stack, although it's not fundamentally Internet Protocol (IP) based, whereas the Thread network stack is inherently based on an IPv6 stack. Despite finding some success in smart lighting, it appears that ZigBee's IoT future may be at the application layer of the network stack and the combination of Thread and ZigBee will be on display at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, NV.
The ZigBee wireless network has been seen by many as the most mature of the networking technologies that might underlie lighting in an IoT future. As we covered in a feature article, ZigBee is based on the IEE 802.15.4 wireless mesh networking lower layers, but has mid-layers that are not IP based and upper application-specific layers developed by members of the alliance. As far back as 2012, the alliance asserted that it offered a full network stack including application layer standards that would enable smart lighting in home and commercial settings. And indeed the Connected Lighting Alliance endorsed ZigBee for residential applications and even conducted interoperability demonstrations at CES in 2015.
Still, a network such as ZigBee requires a gateway to expose nodes on a ZigBee network to a wider IoT based on IPv6 or the 6LoWPAN (IPv6 over Low power Wireless Personal Area Network) network — which ironically shares the 802.15.4 physical and media-access-control layers with ZigBee. The difference between, say, a gateway that must translate packets between different network protocols and a simple bridge between IP networks is a subtle but significant one. We will dig into that topic in detail in an upcoming feature article. But for our purposes here, a ZigBee gateway could result in a more complex scenario in which ZigBee gateway software might have to be adapted or updated as new services are added to the IoT.
And without question, the future of the IoT is IP based. The Thread Group appears poised as the embedded network stack of choice for the IoT. Thread is a non-profit group developing open software and is backed by major players such as Qualcomm, Samsung, Osram, Nest Labs, and many more companies.
What the latest announcement means is that software developed for ZigBee-based application layer standards will still work on IP networks as the IoT industry progresses. For example, we could see a future where software developed for, say, a Philips Lighting Hue environment, based on the ZigBee Light Link protocol, could work with future Thread-based LED lamps and luminaires, perhaps side-by-side with products based on a full ZigBee-based network. Indeed, it seems that even while ZigBee is pursuing the 3.0 version of its full network, that the alliance is also preparing for an existence where its main value is at the application layer where the alliance has developed vertical-application protocols for lighting, building management, industrial networking, and many other sectors.