The biggest advantages delivered by IoT don't come from a single connected element. Rather the value comes from its plurality -- the things with the s -- and how they all work together.
Consider all the components that can go into a smart home: door locks, entertainment systems, thermostats and personal devices such as a phone or an Amazon Alexa. A smart home functions smoothest when all components work in unison, and to do that they need to communicate with each other. Ideally, components should interact seamlessly, but they often don't -- not in a smart home and not in many enterprise IoT deployments, either.
Take that smart home, for example: A smartphone, the Alexa and maybe the thermostat connect directly to Wi-Fi, but the smart locks might use Bluetooth or Z-Wave communication protocols, said Patrice Samuels, a senior analyst with Parks Associates. That difference might not seem like a big deal, but if home systems want to operate in concert -- such as turning up the thermostat when the doors unlock -- then they must have some communication standards in common.
"That's where it gets complicated," Samuels said. "We need a way for [devices] to talk to the network in the home. Not everything in the smart home can talk to each other, but when everything does talk together, then you get the most benefits."
That assessment speaks to the value of IoT in general but also the need for interoperability within IoT.
Understand IoT interoperability and its three types
IoT interoperability is the capacity for multiple components within an IoT deployment to effectively communicate, share data and perform together to achieve a shared outcome. Organizations must be able to transmit and understand data throughout all the connections from devices to the cloud.
"Interoperability in an IoT context refers to the ability to transport meaningful, actionable information between systems. Information can refer to many things, so it's important to understand that IoT is a vast system of systems, where connections and data exchange can occur between literally billions of devices and systems," said Shawn Chandler, CTO at GridCure and a senior member of the professional association IEEE.
IoT deployments have three interoperability needs:
- Technical interoperability. The deployment has the ability to use a physical communications infrastructure to transport bits of data.
- Syntactic interoperability. A shared syntax or common information model structures the data and establishes a protocol to share the information as specific typed data.
- Semantic IoT deployments require the ability to establish the meaning of the data.
Interoperability challenges inhibit opportunities for additional IoT advantages
The current inability of connected devices to effectively communicate immediately when deployed has stymied the adoption of connected devices, increased costs and limited the value of many IoT uses. Addressing interoperability requirements in IoT deployments can be complex and costly, which can derail or slow IoT projects.
The lack of automatic, widespread interoperability doesn't only slow the consumer or home IoT markets, but it slows progress in civic and commercial IoT deployments. Smart city projects can require hundreds or thousands of devices in numerous categories to work in concert to get the technology's full advantages. Industrial IoT investments with different device requirements and physical barriers could also necessitate the use of multiple communication protocols.
Organizations can use IoT hubs, which act as a central connector for various devices, to provide the translation services needed to connect various devices within an IoT deployment, Samuels said. However, the need to add extra components for interoperability, such as hubs, adds cost and introduces complexity that could hinder more buy-in for IoT use cases and lower the IoT ROI.
"IoT interoperability promises benefits because of the underlying broad interests to exchange data between everything which can be connected," Chandler said. "Interoperability does exist, but it is challenged today as a result of sustained innovation outpacing the standards industry, which seeks to provide well-vetted templates of communication, methods and protocols, to govern information exchange, data privacy and security."
The lack of widespread interoperability also limits the ability to maximize its value, as well as innovation.
"If you can't get interoperability in a good state, it's going to make it incredibly difficult to consider digital twins, machine learning, predictive automation, because you need to understand the model of real-world things to be successful. And only with interoperability can you allow that to happen," said Tom Glover, an enterprise architect now working as head of things with the global consultancy ThoughtWorks.
Interoperability standards bridge IoT device communication
Many within the IoT community, including manufacturers and engineers who design connected ecosystems for use, work together to develop standards that address interoperability challenges. Multiple standards organizations have rallied around the cause, but there's no dominant common standard that's applicable in every IoT use case.
"There are so many competing government organizations, standards bodies, industry coalitions, corporations, academic institutions and even individual contributors making contributions in this space, with significant variance by industry and even location sometimes in the same industry," Chandler said.
However, some standards are more widely used than others. Key communication standards, such as IP, have formed in the technical and syntactic interoperability layers over the last 30 years.
MQTT, the open source networking protocol that transports messages between devices, has served as a lingua franca -- a common or bridge language -- for the wide range of IoT components that can use it to exchange information, Glover said.
Meanwhile, experts said the industry is beginning to coalesce around the notion that devices should simply work together -- with the idea that IoT interoperability will resemble plug-and-play technology -- and the industry will come together around the use of mature standards such as Open Connectivity Foundations IoT specification that defines how devices can interoperate securely between each other and the cloud.
Chandler advised organizations to consider the purpose of the IoT exchange and use industry standards as much as possible.
"Global standards organizations such as IEEE spend significant effort forming teams of industry experts to evaluate needs as they emerge, forming approaches, developing guides and recommended practices in a hierarchy of increasingly meaningful frameworks, which result in a set of accepted standards," Chandler said. "In this way, interoperability for IoT becomes a native expectation across industries, rather than contrived through a collection of devices and artifacts requiring significant customization for every new feature."