IoT communication protocols you should know about

When implementing a data-based strategy, it all starts with the Data. One of the typical sources to extract data are IoT devices. Knowing which IoT communication protocols exist and how to use them for data communication is essential as they are the ones that make data gathering from them possible.

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Updated on May 9th, 2024 - Originally published on April 29th, 2021

We look at what IoT protocols are, how they work and why they are important, and explore the main network protocols that are incorporated into these systems.

What are IoT protocols?

IoT protocols are, in plain words, the "language" IoT devices use to communicate with other devices or with platforms.

Most industrial companies are in a process of implementing a data-based strategy. By doing so, they expect to obtain multiple benefits - from boosting automation and productivity to generating new revenue models. But the first thing they need to do is extracting data.

Data, in industrial environments can come from a number of different sources. One of them are Internet of Things (IoT) devices. From a technical IT/Telecommunications perspective, protocols are a set of standards and rules that allow two entities to understand each other and exchange information, facilitating Machine2Machine (M2M) communication. If those entities are IoT devices, then we talk about IoT communication protocols or simply IoT protocols

In other words, IoT protocols are to machine-to-machine communication what languages, gestures, or body language are to human-to-human communication. So, just as two humans need to speak the same language to understand each other, devices need to use the same IoT protocols to exchange information.

On the other hand, in a recent study on Industrial Edge Computing, we observed that one of the needs that companies have and want to cover is precisely knowledge in IoT protocols (You can see more details in our report, the Industrial Edge Computing Barometer).

For their operation, the emerging data protocols used in IoT networks have several layers:

  • Application: the interface between user and device.
  • Network: it boosts the communication between the router and each of the devices connected to the network.
  • Transport: facilitates the communication of data between the different levels and guarantees its security.
  • Physical: the physical communication network between devices.
  • Data Link: responsible for transporting data in the system and detecting and correcting problems.

You might be interested in: IoT platforms, what they are and how they could benefit your business.

Why are IoT protocols necessary?

As mentioned above, IoT protocols are necessary for communication to take place between the different IoT devices.

Thus, the IoT communication protocols will have to fulfil the following functions:

  • They enable communication between a large number and variety of devices simultaneously . They must transport messages between devices with different requirements (sensors and actuators but also data processing and storage devices), all in an efficient manner.
  • They avoid coupling between devices so that, ideally, there is no dependency between them.
  • They facilitate scalability, allowing devices to be added to or removed from the IoT environment without affecting the overall deployment.
  • They ensure secure communications in vulnerable environments such as Industrial IoT, but cybersecurity must also be addressed at the device level.
  • They provide easy access to devices, whether or not there are latency problems or firewalls, among other obstacles.

Barbara, as an Edge platform, allows to communicate with IoT devices using different IoT protocols

Types of IoT protocols and the most common ones

Due to the variety of existing IoT devices, different IoT protocols have emerged to manage communication in different contexts.

The type of protocol is determined by the devices to be connected, the function they perform and the distance the data must travel to be transmitted. In any case, IoT communication protocols are divided into two types:

  • Network access protocols: this is the lower layer, which enables the connection between two machines. Returning to the analogy with human communication, network access protocols are the communication vehicle of choice (oral, written, gestural communication...). This is where Wifi, Ethernet, 3G, 5G networks come in...
  • Transmission protocols: are used to encode the information we send over the above networks. Following the comparison with the way we humans communicate, in this case the transmission protocols would be the specific language chosen to transmit information. Within these IoT protocols, two families stand out:
  • IT protocols, which are used to transmit information to the internet or other IoT devices.
  • OT (Industrial) protocols for communication with industrial equipment.

There is no standardization when it comes to choosing between the different IoT protocols. However, there are some common guidelines that are followed:

- When communicating IoT devices with the Internet, the most common protocols are MQTT, CoAP and HTTP. They are highly flexible as they are designed to transmit any type of information.

In addition to the well-known HTTP protocols, the following protocols stand out here:

  • MQTT (MQ Telemetry Transport). It follows a publish-subscribe model, allowing communication between a large number of devices. For its operation, a central server called broker is in charge of receiving the messages from the sending devices and distributing them among the receivers. The messages are also organized hierarchically by tags.
  • CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) is aimed at communication between low-power devices and uses the REST model of HTTP, along with other requirements such as multicast, UDP support and low overhead.

- In industrial communication and industrial IoT deployments, protocols are used that are very focused on operations and not so much on sending information. In other words, they are protocols oriented to allow a controller device (a PLC) to communicate with another machine that executes orders.

In this case, the most common protocol is Modbus. However, there are very specific IoT protocols for specific industrial sectors, such as IEC102 and IEC104 for electricity meters or MBUS for water meters.

Related reading: Edge Computing in the Industrial IoT.

In short, when choosing the most appropriate IoT protocols for a particular deployment, it is crucial to first determine the needs of the particular system to be used, and then adjust the chosen protocols.

However, for ease of use, IoT platforms such as Barbara aim to achieve an "agnostic" state, allowing communication over any network interface and any industrial protocol.

The aim is to generate a connectivity that allows companies to become independent of device manufacturers, networks and specific platforms and generate IoT deployments as flexible as possible.

Learn more about the flexibility in IoT protocols enabled by the Industrial IoT platform Barbara OS y request a demo to see the security and efficiency benefits of our software.