IP-all-the-way is the way to go

To take full advantage of building management systems, we need Internet protocol all the way down to the simplest devices.

07/23/2013


Varun Nagaraj is senior vice president and general manager, Internet of Things, at Echelon Corp. He has more than 20 years of high-tech product planning and strategy experience. He holds a BSEE from IIT Bombay, a master’s in computer engineering from NortLately at industry events, or talking with customers, beneath the curiosity about the Internet of Things (IoT), I hear some resistance. In particular, there’s a brewing debate about how far Internet protocol (IP) should go in buildings’ networks. 

Today, IP can be found in gateways or supervisory controllers within a building network. But to realize IP’s simpler, lower-cost management benefits, we need IP-all-the-way to the fieldbus controllers and to the smallest, lowest-powered devices, including sensors and actuators.

I can hear the objections. IP is expensive, so how can we afford to IP-enable below the gateway/supervisory controller level? Aren’t IP networks complex to set up, erasing the ease-of-management argument? What about security? Doesn’t IP’s increased attack surface practically invite hackers to mess with your network? And why add another protocol to the legacy ones already in place and working just fine? 

These are understandable concerns, but I stand by my advocacy of IP-all-the-way—specifically, IPv6 (the IP version required to grant enough addresses for the billions of devices out there) all the way to the fieldbus and device input/output (I/O) level. Let me explain why.

It’s true that currently available silicon makes IP-enabling, low-cost devices cost-prohibitive. But next-generation system-on-chip (SOC) technology will provide the makers of controllers, sensors, actuators, and similar devices with everything they need to IP-enable small, low-power, low-cost devices. I’m not talking about vanilla IP technology. These new IP chips will include a secure IP stack, a range of connectivity options (wired and wireless), enough processing capability with low power consumption to run sufficient application code, and software services. 

Important to this scenario is the concept of communities of devices: a distinct segment within the broader IoT in which devices work cooperatively with each other to achieve a larger goal, such as the comfort of an entire building. A community of devices can be IP-enabled, but it doesn’t necessarily mandate Internet connectivity. It operates primarily as an autonomous and resilient peer-to-peer network. In fact, today’s building network is an example of a community of devices that includes sensors, actuators, and various controllers working harmoniously to optimize comfort, safety, and energy efficiency. 

Another objection to an all-IP building network is the upfront planning complexity. Yes, compared to a fieldbus based on twisted pair wiring or compared to simple digital or analog I/O, it’s more complicated to address a particular device with IP. On the other hand, a bit of early complexity is well worth the long-term gains in flexibility. An all-IP network is the simplest, fastest, and most cost-effective way to adapt and change over time. 

Then there’s the issue of security. Many building networks have grown accustomed to security through obscurity, depending on the chaotic mixture of simple wires and cables to thwart potential hackers. In this environment, the very cohesiveness of IP is viewed as a security threat. 

If we believe the Internet works—and clearly, it does—then we also must believe that methods exist to secure IP networks. The key is embedding security directly into IP chips, where Internet-proven security mechanisms are transparent to device developers as well as building network owners. We don’t have to resort to stone-age technologies to implement secure networks in modern all-IP buildings. 

As for integrating IP with legacy protocols, today’s accepted approach for interconnecting networks is through gateways that map functionality between different protocols. But what if we implement gateway functionality in the device itself, through the IP chip? A single device could present itself as an IP device, or a BACnet-over-IP device, or a LonWorks-over-IP device, at the push of a button. And it could integrate multiple media types as easily as multiple protocol types. 

IP-all-the-way in building networks remains an aspiration, I admit. IP-enabling the very lowest-cost devices might never make economic sense. But even aspirationally, IP-all-the-way is an important commitment. The benefits of IP in building networks are clear, but we won’t realize the full potential unless we go all-in. 

Talk to your clients about IP, and start pushing IP as far down into the network as you can. Your clients will thank you.


Varun Nagaraj is senior vice president and general manager, Internet of Things, at Echelon Corp. He has more than 20 years of high-tech product planning and strategy experience. He holds a BSEE from IIT Bombay, a master’s in computer engineering from North Carolina State University, and an MBA from Boston University



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