According to Gartner, by 2020, 26 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices are expected to be operational and attached to the Internet. Most of the devices will be connected via a Wireless Personal Area Network (WPAN). Experts are concerned that current WPAN technologies, such as ZigBee and 6LoWPAN, are not up to the task. They may be right. Researchers discovered a vulnerability in the LIFX smart lightbulb that can be exploited to reveal the associated Wi-Fi network’s security password.

Current WPAN standard comes up short

The networking standard that specifies how current WPAN technologies such as ZigBee deal with Wi-Fi networks (Physical and Media Access Control layers) is IEEE 802.15.4. Besides the password vulnerability, 802.15.4 comes up short in the following areas:

  • Lack of interoperability
  • Incompatible with IPv6
  • Unable to create mesh networks
  • High power requirements limit battery life
  • Lack of security protocols

Developers have jury-rigged fixes on top of the 802.15.4 standard to deal with some of the issues mentioned above. However, none of the current WPANs address all the shortcomings.

Thread Group

A group of companies associated with the IoT realized now was better than later to sort out and fix the networking issues. Delegates from ARM, Big Ass Fans, Freescale Semiconductor, Nest Labs, Samsung Electronics, Silicon Laboratories and Yale Security got together and created Thread. A new WPAN technology that does away with existing concerns. The group’s mission statement: “Thread was designed with one goal in mind: Create the very best way to connect and control products in the home.”

Chris Duckett’s post at ZDnet offers a high-level view of Thread. This article is going to dive deeper into what the Thread Group will be offering when it becomes available to members in late 2014.

How Thread works

I contacted Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group and technical product marketing manager at Nest. Boross walked me through Thread’s intricacies. “Like ZigBee and the other WPAN offerings, Thread will build on the 802.15.4 standard,” Boross explained. “The group felt this was important as there will be no need for a hardware change, existing devices will only need a software update.”

He went on to describe the features built into Thread:

  • An open protocol that carries IPv6 natively
  • A robust mesh network with no single point of failure
  • Standard 802.15.4 radio hardware
  • A simplified installation process using smartphones, tablets, or computers
  • The ability to connect 250 plus devices into a single network supporting multiple hops
  • Security at network and application layers using AES public-key encryption
  • Product install codes are used to make sure only authorized devices can join the network

As for battery life, Boross said the group designed Thread with low-power consumption in mind. The battery-saving features integrated into Thread are:

  • Support for sleepy nodes improves battery life
  • Short messaging conserves bandwidth and power
  • Streamlined routing protocol reduces network overhead and latency
  • Incorporate available, low-power wireless system-on-chips

Thread-enabled devices can work alone or as a mesh network

As newer Thread-capable IoT devices will need to work with current networks, I asked Boross how the two systems would interoperate. He first explained that devices using Thread have two ways of connecting. If there is no existing network or internet access, devices can associate among themselves, such as in a lighting system with multiple light bulbs and switches.

If internet access is desired, the only setup required is associating one or more Wi-Fi-capable devices on the Thread mesh network with the local Wi-Fi network. Boross said it is the group’s hope that all Thread devices will have both 802.15.4 and Wi-Fi capabilities. The redundancy ensures the Thread mesh network will always have access to the local network and internet.

When can we expect to see 802.15.4 IoT devices?

I asked Boross what kind of feedback the group has been receiving from IoT-device manufacturers. He said interest levels were high, with major (but unnamed) companies already on board. The Thread Group intends to accept membership applications later in 2014. Technical documentation will also be available at that time. The consortium is also working on a certification program that will go live during the first half of 2015.