News

ZigBee Teams with Thread Group on IPv6 Home Automation Protocol

‘ZigBee over Thread’ gives Thread Group its first shot at making IPv6-based home automation a reality. Will Z-Wave follow?


Thread Group to ZigBee Alliance: You complete me.
Julie Jacobson · April 2, 2015

The Nest-inspired IP-centric Thread home automation protocol is finally getting some teeth, thanks to a partnership with the ZigBee Alliance. The two groups “are collaborating to enable the ZigBee Cluster Library to run over Thread networks.”

I gave the new Thread Group high marks when it was announced last year (Led by Google’s Nest, ‘Thread’ for Home Automation is Most Promising IoT Standard Yet).

But there was a major caveat: Thread only specifies the network layer of the smart-home stack, dealing with such things as security, reliability, battery optimization, range (through mesh technology) and the like – which is meaningless without applications to wrap around these low-level specifications.

For Thread to have any value, it needs device profiles (what does a light switch do?) and communications standards (how does a light switch talk to a thermostat?), and interoperability rules, among other applications-layer specs.

The ZigBee Alliance is the first smart-home partner to rush to the Thread cause, which makes perfectly good sense.

Thread is based on 6LoWPAN, an efficient method for transmitting IPv6 packets over 802.15.4 radios – the same radios used for ZigBee. It is known commonly, although not accurately, as “IP over ZigBee.”

With this new relationship, we’ll see something more like ZigBee over IP, where the “IP” is really Thread’s own version of 6LoWPAN, including accommodations for security, reliability, efficiency, range (through mesh) and power management.

ZigBee already has the ZigBee IP spec, released in 2013, but it runs over standard 6LoWPAN, which lacks the home-automation-friendly networking features of Thread. The fact that ZigBee already has defined its own IPv6 spec, though, makes it a somewhat painless transition to Thread.

RELATED: Led by Google’s Nest, ‘Thread’ for Home Automation is Most Promising IoT Standard Yet

The current ZigBee IP spec was created for (and employed by) utilities, and is not necessarily optimized for smart home apps, says Tobin Richardson, CEO of the ZigBee Alliance, in an interview with CE Pro.

“We’ve got a very good installation base in ZigBee Pro,” he says. “We also have manufacturers looking for IP-native solutions. … When you look at IP-native solutions on the market, it makes sense to see how our application layer can be used appropriately with groups like Thread.”

Despite the obvious commonalities between the two groups, though, the implementation of ZigBee over Thread will still take some work.

The groups have to determine, for example, “how the ZigBee Cluster Library gets certified,” Richardson says.

The ZCL is basically a collection of public device profiles that serves to ensure (or at least enable) interoperability among ZigBee devices.

And while there are plenty of kinks to work out between Thread and ZigBee, the first Thread devices to ship this year likely will be based on ZigBee applications, as this is the first announcement by Thread about potential smart-home applications.

Even if ZigBee over Thread comes to pass, native ZigBee and native IP devices won’t be able to communicate directly with each other. Some kind of gateway would be required to bridge the two networks.

Z-Wave, Other H.A. Standards Next?

ZigBee is just the first standards group to announce Thread support, but others are invited, says Chris Boross, technical product marketing manager at Nest and president of the Thread Group.

Internet protocol, specifically IPv6, will be the “common convergence” among various smart-home initiatives beginning now and well into the future, Boross suggests.

While IP-based networks may be less efficient than ZigBee- or Z-Wave-based platforms (600x less efficient, according to Z-Wave chairman Mark Walters), IP is still the prevailing standard for the Internet of Things, allowing direct communications among such devices as smart phones, routers and cable boxes.

“We definitely see IPv6 as the future,” Boross says.

As such, other purveyors of home automation technology should consider Thread for IP-based smart home communications, according to Boross.

“I see Thread as being an important mesh network in the home,” he says. “Thread has gone out of its way to optimize the network layer. It is considerably more efficient in terms of overhead and power.”

Update on Thread

Boross says the Thread Group is “on track for a June release” of the Thread spec to members. A certification program (run by UL) will follow, and products are expected to ship in the second half of this year.

The Group was founded last summer mostly by chip makers (ARM, Freescale Semiconductor, Samsung Electronics, Silicon Labs) and a few product manufacturers (Nest, Big Ass Fans and Yale locks).

The Thread protocol is based on a 6LoWPAN technology called Weave, developed and implemented by Nest since the first thermostat. It currently is being used to for device-to-device communications between Nest thermostats and Nest Protect smoke detectors, enabling interactions even when the home network is down.

Recently Somfy, the giant manufacturer of motors for window coverings and other applications, and Tyco, the conglomerate that includes DSC and other security manufacturers, joined the Thread board.

Membership in the group now exceeds 50 companies (view the list), although none has said explicitly that it would ship Thread-based products. (Update: Thread Group reports more than 80 members now.)

RELATED:
With Parse for IoT, Facebook Could Have the Next HomeKit or IFTTT
ZigBee, Z-Wave Respond: Thread for Home Automation ‘Cheerfully Oblivious’
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JULIE JACOBSON
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  About the Author

Julie Jacobson is founding editor of CE Pro, the leading media brand for the home-technology channel. She has covered the smart-home industry since 1994, long before there was much of an Internet, let alone an Internet of things. Currently she studies, speaks, writes and rabble-rouses in the areas of home automation, security, networked A/V, wellness-related technology, biophilic design, and the business of home technology. Julie majored in Economics at the University of Michigan, spent a year abroad at Cambridge University, and earned an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. She is a recipient of the annual CTA TechHome Leadership Award, and a CEDIA Fellows honoree. A washed-up Ultimate Frisbee player, Julie currently resides in San Antonio, Texas and sometimes St. Paul, Minn. Follow on Twitter: @juliejacobson Email Julie at julie.jacobson@emeraldexpo.com

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