With more and more connected devices and cloud services coming out, interoperability and cyber security are two major concerns for home users when they purchase smart home gateways. Multiple communication standards coexist. The chip vendors integrate more protocols into their products for better user experiences.
Undoubtedly, connectivity is a key enabler for smart home. However, end consumers and hardware manufacturers are struggling with lack of unified communication standards. Adding more communication standards refers to more complexity and cost. Some companies opt for proprietary technologies, and others choose open standards, depending on their expertise and design philosophy. The chip vendors take flexible and open approaches by supporting multiple protocols and open platform to make sure the gateway stay connected with new devices, especially those off-the-shelf DIY products.
Qualcomm is one of the most notable companies who promote an open platform to accelerate interoperability. Joseph Bousaba, Senior Director, Product Management, Qualcomm Atheros explained, “We are committed to supporting open interoperable software frameworks like Thread and AllJoyn to enable smart devices to communicate locally.”
The IPv6 over Low-Power Wireless Personal Area Networks (6LoWPAN) technology is an important and promising technology that improves interoperability among wireless connected devices. Rich Chen, FAE Manager, Semiconductor Sales and Application Department at Texas Instruments (TI) indicated, “6LowPAN will possibly become a common communication technology for smart home in the near future.”
Previously, Z-Wave developers design products with binary files. Since 2015, Z-Wave Alliance provides open source codes of middleware to authorized members for customize designs. Facing surging demand of cloud applications, Sigma Designs offers solutions to put Z-Wave data to the IP layer, and introduced a controller development kit to shorten development timeline.
It is a Linux-based reference design, applied for gateways, portals, televisions, set-top boxes, and additional consumer electronics products and cloud-based services. It contains both the Z/IP Gateway and Z-Ware offering as full source code releases, for developing or modifying Z-Wave controllers. Also, it utilizes TI's BeagleBone Black platform to create an open development platform. Developers can put all the smart home intelligence in the home or cloud.
Could gateway makers or chip vendors decide what are de-facto standards or ideal solutions for consumers? Chen of TI commented, “It’s hard for any standard, platform or ecosystem to dominate the IoT market.” Offering flexible and scalable solutions shall be one of the answers.
Texas Instruments offers a TBWTIoT gateway module that integrates rich peripherals to reduce system complexity and cost. The module supports up to 6 UART interfaces to cater to popular communications protocols, such as Wi-Fi, BT/BLE, ZigBee, sub 1-GHz and NFC.
According to a research firm Gartner, wireless technology is a key foundation of the smart home where most of the device categories 128-are wirelessly connected although no single technology will dominate. Gartner expects Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, ZigBee, cellular and various proprietary and mesh networking wireless technologies will all find a place in the smart home.
Combo IC Is the Trend
Traditionally, home automation and security system suppliers design their products based on proprietary Sub 1-GHz technology, or on single standard, primary Z-Wave and ZigBee for wireless control over connected home devices. The new products like network cameras and Internet-connected home appliances, along with cloud services, drive the adoption of Wi-Fi, BLE, 4G LTE and IPv6 supported protocols like Thread. The suppliers are working to integrate more protocols to ensure interoperability.
Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are two promising technologies due to its proliferation among the smart mobile devices. Mark Hung, Research VP at Gartner said, “Bluetooth and Wi-Fi will be two major standards over the next five years because of their competitive cost gaining from economies of scale. Pervasive Wi-Fi enabled devices and connectivity also drive the proliferation of Wi-Fi supported smart home ecosystem. We expect to see more integrated Wi-Fi and Bluetooth combo ICs in the market.”
IHS estimates that Wi-Fi and ZigBee are two primary connectivity technologies. Its statistics shows that Wi-Fi accounted for a fifth of all smart home device shipments in 2014.
Proprietary wireless technology like Sub 1 GHz had a slightly higher device market share than Z-Wave in 2014; whilst ZigBee and Z-Wave accounted for more than 10 percent of shipments. “Over the forecast period to 2018, Wi-Fi is the technology predicted to gain most share,” said Niall Jenkins, Research Manager for Smart Home at IHS.
Chen of TI said, “ZigBee is a popular choice from our customers’ feedback. However, we regard BLE as promising and fast-growing in the near future because smartphones support the standard. Also, the addition of mesh networking to BLE technology will help propel the market, though it still takes a while for the new standard to be finalized.”
“Although there is a clear trend towards IPv6 solutions, not every end device will need to support IP, and there will be room for both IP and non-IP solutions across the various IoT markets. It will take some time for 802.15.4 chipsets paired with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to gain traction. In the short term, there will be significant opportunities for ‘soft’ combos that integrate multiple 802.15.4 protocols on the same chip and use the same radio layer,” comments Malik Saadi, VP, Strategic Technology at ABI Research.
The clients of smart home gateways require that all communication within the home and across the Internet is extremely private and secure, To address the needs, the chip vendors offer secure solutions via both hardware and software designs like data encryption and device authentication through tampering-proof eSE (embedded Secure Element), Triple DES (3DES) or AES cryptographic engines, TLS (DTLS) protocols, Root-of-Trust (RoT), and so on. For example, Wi-Fi chips are designed with 128-bit AES accelerator for bank-level advanced security and data protection. Root of trust enables manufacturers to create and manage authorizations and protections. At the hardware level, Samsung’s ARTIK contains embedded secure element that goes beyond software-based encryption solutions alone. At the application level, the user can identify abnormalities and unusual behavior with the machine learning based anomaly detection system to prevent from a possible hacking or intrusion activity.
The IC companies are committed to providing robust security systems with encrypted communication, and some incorporate software-based security features for adding value on their products with a corresponding increase in cost though. The features keep a constant eye on the home system’s health. They work with the third-party software companies or own their own security software teams.
According to ABI Research, embedded and network security mechanisms increase both cost and complexity. In some cases, the issues can be resolved by outsourcing the security mechanisms, such as encryption or antivirus engines, to the primary access point, such as a gateway.
For example, MediaTek is working with leading security software companies, such as TrendMicro, to offer security management for all IoT devices, from gateways to peripheral devices. “This comprehensive security approach can mitigate security threats and privacy attacks that have become a significant concern with the increasing number of connected IoT devices,” said SR Tsai, General Manager of MediaTek's Wireless Connectivity and Networking Business Unit.
The Yoga home central unit (HCU) is an Intel-based smart home gateway that features Anti-Malware, a key capability in McAfee Embedded Control, to allow only authorized code to run on the smart home system. No program or code outside the authorized set can run, and no unauthorized changes can be made. It helps prevent malicious software from getting control of a system. Secure boot design establishes a root-of-trust. The rouge software, which has not been identified by the O/S, will not be allowed to execute.
Bousaba of Qualcomm said, “We focus on end-to-end security, and build up key features to ensure the security from the device to the cloud. Anti-tampering protects the manufacturer’s code from side band attempts to reprogram devices. Data integrity protects the communication from the device to the cloud with hardware-based encryption algorithms against ‘eavesdropping’ like SSL encryption technology.“
In the smart home space, the success comes from consistent and reliable connectivity, and the challenge comes from the fragmented market. The IC companies put efforts in providing interoperable and secure solutions through both hardware and software designs. To survive in the competitive market, they have been working on sustainable business models to create value and satisfy customer needs.
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