Internet of Things (IoT) devices are seemingly everywhere, from the mobile phones in our pockets and the smart thermostats and doorbell cameras in our homes to the manufacturing facilities where they were made. Protocols and standards ensure that these devices can function correctly and communicate with one another, generating the data that makes them so useful. Here’s a look at the most common IoT protocols and standards.
What are IoT Protocols and Standards?
IoT protocols are established rules about how IoT devices should work and communicate. Standards are similar to protocols, but are used more widely—across an entire industry, for example. Together they ensure that all IoT devices have a minimum level of compatibility with one another and with other related devices and applications.
For instance, a manufacturer might use two different IoT sensors from different brands. As long as both companies follow the same guidelines, the sensors will work on the same network. IoT protocols and standards typically function in a single layer as a distinct part of a larger network—most commonly in the application and middleware layers of a standard five-layer network architecture, although not exclusively. For example, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi operate on the network layer.
Commercial IoT Standards and Protocols
Commercial IoT is a huge, still-growing industry. Interest in smart home tech is creating high demand for devices in the consumer electronics market. As a result, protocols and standards are emerging to ensure consumers get a streamlined, user-friendly experience. While some of these standards are also used in industrial applications, their biggest benefits stand out most in commercial settings. A few commercial IoT standards and protocols are so widely used they have become ubiquitous—like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, for example.
It’s hard to imagine consumer electronics today without the Bluetooth standard for wireless device-to-device communication. Every new smartphone, tablet, and laptop includes Bluetooth support as a standard feature.
Bluetooth was one of the first IoT communication protocols to open the door for a boom in consumer IoT devices, such as smartwatches and wireless headphones. It uses wireless personal area networks (WPANs), allowing for short-range data transmission using radio waves.
Bluetooth was originally standardized by the world’s largest technical professional organization, the IEEE, in 2005 under standard IEEE 802.15.1. Though updates ceased in 2018, Bluetooth remains an extremely popular IoT protocol—particularly among consumer electronics.
Data Distribution Service (DDS)
The Data Distribution Service (DDS) protocol and standard is designed for communication across hardware and software platforms. Its main benefits include easy scalability, high reliability, and low-latency connectivity. DDS is great for ensuring all the IoT components in a system can maintain high-quality data transfers.
DDS is popular across commercial and industrial IoT applications. Originally published in 2004 by the Object Management Group, which maintains it today, it is a middleware protocol for standardizing machine-to-machine communication using the publisher-subscriber model.
Matter is a communication and interoperability standard designed to address the issue of smart home device communication between brands. Many commercial device manufacturers want consumers to buy all their smart home devices from one brand. This isn’t necessarily in the consumer’s best interest, but poor communication between products from different companies may force them to pick a single brand.
Matter ensures that smart home devices from participating manufacturers work together natively. It benefits both manufacturers and consumers. Since companies don’t have to be a one-stop shop, they can instead focus on making great smart thermostats, for example, without worrying about losing money to a competing brand that also makes other products.
Wi-Fi is among the oldest IoT standards and one of today’s most well-known and widely used. Its invention dates back to 1942, when actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr patented frequency hopping. It evolved over the decades until the first WiFi standard was created in 1997.
This first set of standards established the Wi-Fi we know today. The IEEE 802.11 family of standards outlines how communication over wireless local area networks (WLANs) should work. It also establishes a minimum data transfer speed of 2 megabytes per second. The IEEE continues to maintain the 802.11 standards, and Wi-Fi is still found in most consumer electronics and commercial IoT devices, such as smart home appliances and sensors.
Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP) was originally developed for human-to-human communication in 2002. In the 20-plus years since, it has evolved into a machine-to-machine communication protocol popularly used by smart appliances.
Today, XMPP is an open-source protocol maintained by the XMPP Standards Foundation. It’s a lightweight middleware system that standardizes communication and XML data. XMPP runs in the application layer, where it can provide near-real-time data transfers. This responsiveness, combined with XMPP’s high accessibility, makes it ideal for communicating with smart home devices like appliances.
Industrial IoT Standards and Protocols
The industrial IoT market is among the strongest-performing in the world, which should come as no surprise given the countless applications of IoT in manufacturing, logistics, and construction. Industrial IoT (IIoT) is considered its own distinct niche.
IIoT standards and protocols are becoming increasingly important as businesses grow to rely on their IoT devices more. For instance, a manufacturer in a smart factory might use IIoT sensors to send maintenance alerts, which could affect employee safety. IoT communication standards ensure sensors send real-time alerts successfully, regardless of the brand or model.
Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP)
Constrained Application Protocol, or CoAP, is a protocol that allows IoT devices to use HTTP without excessive power consumption. Launched in 2013, it’s popular for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication—particularly in industrial applications like supply chain environments.
CoAP lets industrial users include a wider variety of IoT devices in their networks without being restricted by low power capabilities or bandwidth. Its main drawback is a lack of security features. CoAP is somewhat exposed on its own and needs the additional datagram transport layer security (DTLS) protocol to ensure secure data transmission.
Lightweight M2M (LWM2M)
Lightweight M2M, or LWM2M, is a protocol specifically for remote device management in IoT or machine-to-machine environments. It is purpose-built for IoT sensors, making it a highly useful protocol for industrial applications. Its light weight means it doesn’t require much power, storage, or computing resources to run.
LWM2M was originally published in 2017 and is still active and maintained by OMA SpecWorks. The 2020 update to the protocol added compatibility with edge networking and 5G, making LWM2M a cutting-edge standard for today’s industrial environment. LWM2M works over TCP/TLS, MPTT, and HTTP.
MQTT is an application-layer protocol for machine-to-machine communication using the publisher-subscriber model. It was developed in 1999 and is a popular open-source protocol for standardizing communication between industrial IoT devices.
MQTT is particularly well-suited for IIoT sensors due to its lightweight nature and tolerance for low bandwidth. Since it doesn’t require much memory space, MQTT is highly compatible with the full range of IIoT devices. It essentially acts as a bridge to applications.
Zigbee is a highly popular network protocol specifically for mesh networks used in automation. Consumer and industrial devices use Zigbee, although its emphasis on automation and various applications makes it ideal for business. It was developed by the Connectivity Standards Alliance, which also created Matter.
Zigbee’s top benefits include low power consumption and a high degree of flexibility. It’s designed for short range, similar to Bluetooth. One feature that’s particularly beneficial in the industrial space is its high level of security. Zigbee includes encryption and authentication by default while staying lightweight. This means industrial users can build a mesh network of IoT devices with security features without using excessive power and computing resources.
Security IoT Standards and Protocols
Cybersecurity standards have always played an important role in the IoT’s development and growth. Some communication-related protocols include security features, but this isn’t always the case. A growing pool of IoT protocols and standards is designed to emphasize cybersecurity. Some of these are add-on rulesets for other offerings—for instance, Wi-Fi Protected Access 2 is one of today’s leading network security protocols to add to Wi-Fi.
Ascon is the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s (NIST) official standard for IoT encryption, selected in 2023. It is now the formal standard in the U.S. for securing IoT devices and communications.
Ascon is a collection of cryptographic algorithms that provide highly secure encryption without requiring high amounts of power and computing. Implementing Ascon can help IoT device manufacturers be more proactive about preventing cyberattacks and vulnerabilities rather than just responding to them.
Datagram Transport Layer Security, or DTLS, is a security protocol for encrypted communications. A datagram is a standard data transfer unit, such as a single message—they are commonly used in gaming, streamed video, or videoconferencing applications.
Designed by the Internet Engineering Task Force, DTLS secures wireless communications so senders and receivers know their messages won’t be intercepted or spied on. It’s a commonly used protocol across commercial and industrial spaces.
Z-Wave is a proprietary alternative to protocols like Bluetooth and Wi-Fi designed for encrypted mesh network communications, offering more security than its open-source counterparts. It functions on various low-level radio frequencies.
Z-Wave is popular among smart home automation systems, particularly those focusing on security. It is primarily used in consumer electronics and commercial applications but can also be used in industrial environments.
Bottom Line: Understanding IoT Protocols and Standards
IoT devices are a common part of people’s lives. They’re in our homes, our doctors’ offices, our oceans and skies, and businesses increasingly rely on them for a wide range of purposes. Day in and day out, these devices generate massive volumes of data used for business intelligence, competitive analysis, more efficient manufacturing, consumer feedback, and more. Dozens of protocols and standards run in the background to ensure that these devices and sensors work smoothly and securely and can communicate with each other effectively—understanding these protocols can help enterprises make better purchase decisions and build more secure, robust IoT networks.
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