IT managers seeking end-to-end visibility for the enterprise are one step closer with a new wireless standard.
ZigBee, or IEEE 802.15.4, is a low-power, short-range wireless technology that can be used to integrate sensor and sensor-based systems – such as lighting, security and HVAC – with other parts of the enterprise. (The name “ZigBee” comes from the little zigzag dance that honeybees use to tell their fellow colony members about food sources.)
“Enterprises that have large facilities or many branch offices can use ZigBee to automate and control many functions like air conditioning or heating levels. This type of automation has advantages that range from cost cutting to improvements in productivity,” says John DiGiovanni, director of marketing at Calif.-based wireless vendor Xirrus.
ZigBee differs from the 802.11 wireless offerings in many key ways. “802.11 is designed to address the needs of local area networking where speed is one of the key requirements, and it places no importance on long battery life, networks that self-organize and self-heal, or cost,” says Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, a group of 200 members in San Ramon, Calif. He adds that 802.11 networks also are limited in scale to attachments of about 50 clients.
Conversely, he says, “ZigBee networks can range in size from a few radios to as many as 65,000 and these networks are capable of self-forming and self-healing. ZigBee battery-powered devices are cable of operating for years without needing replacement.”
New Standard, New Products
Though data rates don’t exceed 250K bit/sec and the distance is limited to 300 feet, experts say this is more than enough for sensor networks. “IT administrators need to understand that ZigBee will not accommodate large chunks of data so you’re not going to use it to replace your wired or Wi-Fi network. You can think of ZigBee as a purpose-built technology, one that provides a low-cost wireless connectivity option for sensor or monitoring systems,” DiGiovanni says.
The standard, ratified in December 2004, will soon be updated. Early next year, the 200-member ZigBee Alliance, a group of 200 members, plans to release an enhanced version that includes simplified maintenance and over-the-air setup. Honeywell, Philips, Siemens and Samsung are among the Alliance’s major players.
“There are well over a thousand companies developing with ZigBee so we can expect a growing stream of products over the next 12 months,” he says. “There are products that address things like monitoring fire extinguishers to ensure they are charged and ready to go; automatic meter reading for utilities; and Zigbee-enabled SIM cards for mobile phones that allow the phone to act as a gateway, point of sale device and control unit for building systems. Pretty much anywhere you would find a sensor or control would benefit [from ZigBee].”
Anticipating that ZigBee networks will be melded into other parts of the enterprise, the ZigBee standard includes guidelines for gateways that allow ZigBee sensor and control networks to integrate with other wired and wireless networks.
“Data being collected or monitored by these sensor networks can be sent across to the IP network to the people responsible for facilities management,” DiGiovanni says.
Craig Mathias, principal at the Farpoint Group consultancy, says ZigBee will enable IT managers to expand their networks and bring critical information about the enterprise, such as climate control and security, into other enterprise applications.
He adds that ZigBee will peacefully coexist with other wireless networking technologies, such as RFID. “ZigBee is infrastructure-focused, while RFID is at the edge,” he says.
Mathias says ZigBee will be broadly influential in enterprise environments where telemetry, control and sensors are involved, such as a factory floor, logistics and transportation. “You can use ZigBee to help monitor the arrival of parts – it can be used in conjunction with RFID in that respect,” he says.
DiGiovanni says now is the time for IT managers to learn about this technology. “Get educated on the types of devices that can utilize ZigBee and how they can be integrated into your current infrastructure.”