Led by Nest, Thread for Home Automation is Most Promising IoT Standard Yet

Thread Group, launched today by Nest, Big Ass Fans, Yale and major chip makers, presents mesh network for 6LoWPAN; millions of deployments in the field already via Nest Weave.

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It’s hard to introduce a new “standard” for home automation or Internet of Things without being laughed out of the (enlightened) media, but this new protocol called Thread is the most exciting initiative I’ve seen since Z-Wave. And I’ve been doing this for 20 years.

That’s because Thread takes the most ubiquitous networking protocol on the planet – IP – and turns it into a mesh network to optimize coverage and performance. Specifically, Thread is based on 6LoWPAN, the low-power wireless protocol that delivers IPv6 over an 802.15.4 radio – the same radio used for ZigBee.

The new technology comes from the Thread Group (managed by Inventures), whose seven founders include chip makers and product manufacturers alike: ARM, Big Ass Fans, Freescale Semiconductor, Nest Labs, Samsung Electronics (chip division, not CE), Silicon Labs, and Yale Security.

In addition to bringing mesh to 6LoWPAN, Thread adds a layer of security, enables point-to-point communications, and provides schemes for optimizing battery life.

Not coincidentally, Thread borrows from the (previously?) proprietary Nest protocol called Weave, which also is based on 6LoWPAN and also adds “special sauce,” the likes of which can be found in Thread.

Precious little has been written about Weave. A Google search reveals that I’m pretty much the only one that has covered it, albeit briefly.

RELATED: Nest Weave and the $555M Acquisition of Dropcam

Weave allows Nest thermostats to communicate with Nest Protect smoke/CO detectors over security- and communications-enhanced 6LoWPAN without the need for a Wi-Fi network.

In an interview with Thread representatives, Chris Boross, president of the Thread Group and technical marketing exec at Nest, stopped short of saying Thread is Weave. After all, he was representing Thread on the call and wanted to deflect attention from his own company.

“This is different from Nest Weave,” he says, but Weave “does run over Thread.”

The interview also revealed there were millions of Thread-enabled products already deployed. That would be the installed base of Nest thermostats and Protect sensors.

“Certainly there’s value in that,” says Kevin Kraus, treasurer of the Thread Group and director of residential product management for lock-maker Yale. “I think people see them [Nest] as one of the benchmarks.”

About Thread Technology

First, let’s get one thing clear: Thread addresses only the network layer of a home-control ecosystem, not the applications. So, while Thread-enabled products might be compatible, they won’t interoperate unless someone writes the rules or standards for devices to actually work together. More on that later.

I posed the question earlier this year: Can Wi-Fi or Bluetooth Supplant ZigBee or Z-Wave for Home Automation?

The answer was “yes,” with several qualifications, especially in the areas of network range and power requirements.

The main case for Wi-Fi is that IP is so ubiquitous – built into phones, tablets, TVs, computers, routers, smart devices, etc. – that devices can connect without special gateways.

Now for the challenges … and Thread’s answers.

Gateways, Points of Failure

Thread addresses only the networking part of the stack.

CHALLENGE: Of all the protocols, Wi-Fi is the one that doesn’t require a special gateway to connect to other devices in the home and to the Internet. It all can be done over the standard home network through a router. (Bluetooth also is ubiquitous but it requires either a gateway or on-premise smart phone/tablet for Internet connectivity.)

When you think about other technologies such as Z-Wave and ZigBee, you need a special hub to connect to the Internet and (usually) to other devices in the home automation ecosystem. That hub can fail.

Likewise, even in the case of Wi-Fi, the home automation system falls apart if the home network goes down.

This single point of failure can undermine a home-control system.

THREAD: 6LoWPAN doesn’t always work out-of-the-box with consumer routers, but “it needs less than other standards,” says Inventures executive director Kevin Schader. “It just needs simple IPv6 routing software, which is pretty standard.”

As Boross says, “If the Internet or network goes down, it’s important that devices can still talk to each other.” Indeed, Nest does that very thing with Weave.

In fact, users can commission and control Thread products in the home even if there is no Wi-Fi connection, thanks to support for peer-to-peer communications.

Power Demands
CHALLENGE: There’s a reason you don’t see Wi-Fi in many battery-powered devices such as door locks and sensors. Who wants to change the batteries every six to 12 months?

THREAD: 6LoWPAN, operating more efficiently over 802.15.4 radios, does a much better job in the power department but could still use some help, especially when it comes to a house full of security sensors.

Thread responds with “extensive support” for power optimization, according to Boross.

“It is designed for use cases like sensors,” he says. “Nodes are often chatty. We’ve gone to great lengths to minimize the network overhead outside of interesting traffic. We minimize the up time so the radio can sleep as much as possible.”

RELATED: Big Ass Fans Gets into Smart Home Biz with SenseME and Thread

Battery life is one reason the Thread Group invited Yale, maker of ZigBee- and Z-Wave-enabled door locks, to the party.

“We were brought in because they wanted a company that had experience supporting these protocols, but was an expert in battery-powered products,” says Kraus.

He suggests that a mesh network can extend battery life because “the network is so much more robust [efficient] when there are multiple ‘parents.’”

“There is such a robust network, the lock should finally be able to sleep like it’s supposed to,” he says.

Range
CHALLENGE: Not being a mesh network, Wi-Fi (and 6LoWPAN) can be limited in range based on the strength of a home network and certain obstacles such as metal, mirrors and other unforgiving building materials.

THREAD: Not only does Thread add potentially unlimited range to a network through its mesh topology, it also includes self-healing and self-managing capabilities so that signals are delivered through the most efficient route at any given time.

Boross notes that a mesh network can get confused with so many nodes, but Thread allows users to remove and re-position devices at their whim, without the system skipping a beat.

Evolution of Thread

My personal opinion? Nest created Weave with every intention of turning it into an open standard that would work with its own devices and, eventually, millions of others. It’s good to have a standard when you lead the effort by a couple of years and millions of deployed devices.

Could that be the reason Google bought the company for the ridiculously high price of $3.2 billion? Is that the unspecified intellectual property that pundits claim is so valuable to Google?

But I digress.

In developing the “new” technology, Boross says of Thread, “It needs to be a low-power mesh network. Wi-Fi is great, but it should be a mesh to augment W-Fi.”

In addition, users should always have direct access to devices in the home, even if the network goes down.

The technology should be self-healing, secure and user friendly.

And, key to the success of the technology, it must be painless to implement.

“Thread amazingly does it all,” Boross says, with just a hint of sarcasm.

Indeed, Thread should enable fast time-to-market because it uses existing radio silicon (802.15.4) of which tens or hundreds of millions have already shipped. ABI Research estimates 850 million of the 2.5 GHz chipsets from multiple vendors will ship in 2016.

“We didn’t want to have to develop whole new hardware platforms or silicon to support a new mesh network,” Boross says. “Product development can start right now.”

In fact, for 802.15.4 products already deployed, a software update could render these devices Thread-friendly.

Another advantage of Thread is that it is “legacy-free,” Boross notes. “We had a clean sheet of paper. It only had to support itself. It does not require backward compatibility, except for IPv6.”

He says the group would have liked to use an existing home automation technology, but all of them had shortcomings.

Wi-Fi we’ve discussed already: high power burden and a single point of failure in the router.

ZigBee Pro requires a network manager to carry traffic, and it’s “not amazingly Internet friendly,” Boross says.

ZigBee IP comes close, says Boross, “but it doesn’t really seem to focus on the residential/CE market. It’s more around smart meters. There is a limit to the number of nodes and the routing protocol is not very efficient for node-to-node communications.”

Z-Wave is trapped with a single silicon vendor and “meshing is sort of hit-or-miss,” according to Boross. “It needs a network manager and it’s super-low-bandwidth.”

Bluetooth? Well, that didn’t come up in the conversation, nor was it mentioned in Thread’s comparison chart. Bluetooth Smart (Bluetooth Low Energy, or BLE) is ubiquitous, low-power, and soon mesh-networkable, thanks to technologies like CSRmesh.

Responding to my question on the matter, Boross called BLE mesh an “interesting space. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

On Applications, Interoperability and Big Ass Fans

As mentioned, Thread is a networking technology only. It is not a home automation protocol per se, but it is optimized (indeed created) for the connected home.

Companies like Nest have already created apps for it. Few others have launched 6LoWPAN products and services beyond GreenWave Reality, whose smart bulbs are sold by Home Depot under the TCP brand. GreenWave recently exited the hardware business to focus on product development and cloud services.

We can imagine that Nest will lead the charge in application-level development. The company, after all, has its own Thread-compliant home automation protocol and will likely enlist others to talk natively with its thermostats and smoke detectors.

In fact, that’s how Big Ass Fans came to be a founder of the Thread Group. The two companies had been working on integrating smart thermostats with smart fans – a natural marriage.

While Big Ass Fans will be shipping its Smart Ass Fans with SenseME technology soon – it was developed before talk of Thread—the company also will work towards Thread compliance. 

Thread compliance, however, does not ensure interoperability at the applications layer.

“Writing applications and device profiles is outside of our scope,” says Boross. “We expect product and service providers to figure that out for themselves.”

He suggests that “potentially, device profiles could be leveraged from Z-Wave and ZigBee” for Thread.

For his part, Yale’s Kraus says, “We try to be agnostic. We will continue to sell ZigBee and Z-Wave products.”

He adds, however, that with the success of Thread, “I’m sure ZigBee and Z-Wave will raise the bar.”

Thread Roll-Out

Since it doesn’t address home-control applications, Thread really isn’t a consumer-facing designation, at least “not at this point,” says Sujata Neidig, consumer business development manager for Freescale and VP marketing for the Thread Group. “The point is to address product and service providers.”

Thread officially launches today, with membership applications available soon.

Interested parties can review membership benefits and register here.

Detailed technical documentation and member meetings can be expected later this year.

Currently the group is developing a product certification program, which is expected to be open to members in the first half of 2015.

The organization expects to have “some sort of presence” at CES 2015 in January.

You heard it here: This one is a winner.

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About the Author

Julie Jacobson
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Julie Jacobson:

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

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