Thread – an enabler for IOT 2.0: Now the connected home can become a reality
Everyone is talking about the Internet of Things, but up until now it was still not clear how things should, in general, be connected together. ‘Wireless’ is how it should operate, but because different units use different wireless standards, connecting them together into an IOT is anything but simple. New Thread technology makes it possible for many different systems - such as light control, heating and air conditioning, alarm systems, etc., which in the past have worked separately from one another - to be connected into a wireless network with an affordable system. This can be done whether the respective device works with Bluetooth, WLAN or WPAN (IEEE 802.15.4) or 6LoWPAN.
To begin this technical paper here is a good piece of news: Thread – the subject of this paper – is not just a new standard, but rather a bracket which enables the previous standards to be used in parallel within a control system and thereby enable every individual device to be addressed / controlled individually. It also provides the connection of each individual device with the cloud. Thread is a form of evolution that builds on the existing standards ZigBee, 6LoWPAN, WLAN and Bluetooth (including Bluetooth Low Energy) but, in principle, it could also work together with other data transmission systems.
Thread functions with its network protocols as a type of standardised motorway between the individual data transmission standards. Thread is a pure software solution that concentrates on the network layer (layer 3) and uses IPv6 for this purpose. If, for example, a light or an energy measurement device works on the basis of a ZigBee Energy Profile, then Thread enables the communication with the other subscribers in the home network, including devices such as laptops, tablets, and smartphones, which generally serve as input/output units. The light or the energy measuring device in this example exclusively uses its ZigBee environment, but for the overarching communication with devices on the other side of their ZigBee niche, the communication protocol implemented as part of Thread acts like a motorway to connect with the world on the other side of the ZigBee environment.
Since Thread works with IPv6, no new protocol comes into play. Instead, Thread makes the network infrastructure available on the basis of a different application and other standards can communicate with one another. Other protocols, such as AllJoyn or Weave used by the Google subsidiary Nest, are no problem for Thread. Thread provides interoperability on the basis of IPv6. Thus the data from different types of individual devices, such as fitness armbands, TV accessories, tablets, lights, smoke and movement detectors, thermostats, surveillance cameras, glass breaking sensors, closing devices, baby monitors, garden watering equipment, washing machines, refrigerators, ovens, coffee machines, ventilation systems, gateways and many more, can be used in a standard data environment. Consequently, Thread is a genuine enabler of the IoT, the Internet of Things.
Thanks to IPv6, it is also possible with Thread to connect – for example by smartphone – with devices at home even if one is away on another continent during a trip. Thread can make a corresponding logical point-to-point connection. Each individual device (instrument, sensor, etc.) has its own address for this.
In comparison to all the other protocols jostling for attention in this segment, solutions on the basis of Thread can be implemented more easily because the developers only need to use IPv6. To do so, they need to program the system so that they send a data message to a certain address, but require no know-how about the wireless technology or the specific communication properties of the individual devices. Thanks to IPv6, they concentrate exclusively on their application software. Thread ensures that the communication takes place with the appropriate protocols in each case. If a device does not have an IPv6 compatible address, Thread carries out the corresponding protocol conversion in the same way as a router.
The backbone of Thread
Behind Thread, there is the Thread Group, a not-for-profit organisation in which companies have joined forces - they are independent and vendor-neutral and welcome new members. The Thread Group deals with the specifications, the certification programme, the Threadgroup.org website, trademarks and copyright issues as well as logos. At present the Thread Group comprises the sponsor companies ARM, Bigass (fans), NXP, Nest, Samsung, Silicon Labs, Somfy, Tyco and Yale, as well as over 130 member firms. The Thread Group’s first big launch was at the CES 2016 in Las Vegas.
Thread Pioneer NXP
While other companies are just beginning their Thread activities, NXP already offers a functional solution because it has been involved from the beginning. For each type of network node, there is an NXP Kinetis microcontroller or suitable iMX6 application processors that EBV Elektronik can supply. With the help of the Thread software, they can fully cover the tasks described above.
The Thread Stack from NXP runs efficiently on various microprocessors and application processors. It ensures the communication between different edge-node named data end points which work with various data transmission standards so that developers of this type of edge-node can immediately begin the development of their actual products.
EBV Elektronik has been part of Thread from the beginning – since 2014. Since then, EBV FAEs have completed an intensive Thread training course in order to offer developers optimal support on this new technology. There are already hands-on workshops in which potential Thread users can become familiar with the technology.
Complete Thread platform
NXP now offers a complete range of Thread platforms on which Thread runs very well, some of which even contain NXP sensors. In the development of these platforms, NXP’s goal right from the start was to make the designers’ work easier and to minimise the time they required for the development of a system solution. The directly usable platform solution helps in that they can, in most cases, adopt the existing NXP designs and only need to make a few changes in order to modify the products for use as part of an individual solution. A proof-of-concept solution can be produced with the platforms very quickly.
The Kinetis microcontroller supports, for example, Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and Thread directly on one chip – also on the high frequency side. Even when the complete system works exclusively with BLE, connectivity is always possible with other standards through the Thread stack when there is a functional extension.
Solve problems fast with the development kit
The Thread stack is not an independent module that the developer must learn completely from scratch. Instead, NXP has completely integrated the stack into its software development kit for the Kinetis microcontroller, so that system developers can concentrate on the application layer right from the start. This is because they have a robust stack as the basis, which is certified and delivers virtually all the answers to questions about interoperability. This configuration saves an immense amount of development time and at the same time all elements are exactly matched to one another. Because the Thread support is also contained in the SDK (software development kit), the software programmers can concentrate on their application right from the start. They set it up directly on IPv6 and do not have to worry about the lower layers.
Once the design is within the Thread environment, the Thread Group delivers further support in order to ensure that the frame conditions are all in order, while offering access to all the protocols necessary for a certification.
EBV Elektronik can already supply Kinetis Freedom Boards suitable as low cost development tools. If necessary, EBV customers can also receive the board’s Gerber data in order to transfer the corresponding elements from their proof-of-concept solution into the actual design and save valuable development time. In this way, they can directly use as many circuit items as they want to, without having to pay any licence charges. The Thread stack is also available to download in combination with the NXP MCUs, free of charge.
NXP has already optimised its silicon right from the start with regards to the system level. In this way, system developers, together with the Thread stack and development tools, can very quickly produce a marketable solution, because they no longer need to collect the individual items or make adjustments between the individual elements, and the complete documentation is available from the outset.
Another important subject in this context is data security. With the new security architecture, which is part of Thread, the developers can easily anchor their system design to the necessary security elements right from the beginning. Since the FAEs at EBV also focus strongly on the security of data, and as EBV also has a highly specialised security team, system developers can also implement the corresponding security measures consistently in the designs they develop as part of the Internet of Things.