Thread – a new smart home protocol to watch

• • data transmission, industry trends, Wi-Fi

Your customers want the best for their smart home. That’s why you’ve installed a structured wiring network that functions perfectly with a low-profile media distribution enclosure and cables are concealed inside sleek cable raceways. So, how can they get a smart home network that works as well as the internet? One option is using a network protocol called Thread.

A relative newcomer to the smart home world, Thread was developed specifically for the smart home. Thread is based on the same principles that make the internet work so well. The intention? To provide a universal language that allows different devices to operate on the same network. This is similar to the use of HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP), the universal language that allows the internet to function smoothly even though individual devices run different operating systems.

Thread creates a stable network

Thread uses a mesh network topology that can connect more than 250 devices. TheThread network is made up of nodes that can also act as active routers, end devices, or leaders. As the network is set up, the nodes communicate with each other and assign roles based on position in the network. Any changes to the network such as damage to a node or the addition of a new device will cause nodes to reassign roles. This makes the network extremely stable.

Thread uses a combination of internet protocol (IP) network, which is the foundation of the web, and Institute of Electronic Electrical Engineers (IEEE) 802.15.4 standard. This combination means Thread devices will continue to function even if the internet connection goes down and that the network has low energy demands. IEEE 802.15.4 standard uses radio frequency (RF) technology, which doesn’t use a lot of power.

Nodes communicate primarily via the low-energy RF band because communication with the exterior network (Wi-Fi or Ethernet) is handled by an edge or border router. Border routers can take the form of a physical router set up on the network, or they can be embedded in a Thread certified product. Physical routers are typically called Customer Edge or Customer Premises Equipment, and they are installed as access points in the smart home.

Thread certified devices that have Wi-Fi interfaces can also function as border routers. The Thread network topology allows for – and works best with – multiple border routers.

Thread creates a secure network

The border router also keeps the network secure. Access to any device on the Thread network must go through the border router and must use the network management passphrase. All new devices are added using passphrases as well.  IEEE 802.15.4 standard uses authentication and encryption, and Thread adds a “handshake” between each pair of communicating nodes, which adds another layer of security.

Thread partnerships

The promotion and education for Thread is handled by a non-profit organization called the Thread Group. Even though the group was only formed in 2014, its membership list includes a lot of major players in the IoT space.

The Thread Group actively pursues partnerships that will improve interoperability. Thread has partnered with KNX, a protocol that is popular for home automation, Zigbee, and the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA), an international industry association.

Thread’s partnership with Zigbee has already resulted in the development of numerous IoT devices that use Zigbee’s open application layer called Dotdot over a Thread network.

CABA is an organization with a membership of 330 organizations working on the design, manufacture, installation, and sale of building automation products. The partnership between Thread and CABA means that the two organizations can work together to set up forums that allow for the exchange of information regarding the challenges of interoperability.

While it may seem counterintuitive that an additional protocol could simplify the interoperability issue, by working with KNX, CABA, and Zigbee, Thread seems to be well on its way to doing just that.