IoT technologies and protocols

Get started in the world of IoT. This guide will give you a strong foundation in IoT technologies and protocols to help you make the right choices for your project.

A guide to IoT technologies and protocols

The Internet of Things is a convergence of embedded systems, wireless sensor networks, control systems and automation that makes connected factories, intelligent retail, smart homes and cities, and wearable devices possible. IoT technologies empower you to transform your business with data-driven insights, improved operational processes, new lines of business and more efficient use of materials.

IoT technologies continue to expand, with countless service providers, a variety of platforms and millions of new devices emerging every year, leaving developers with many decisions to make before entering the IoT ecosystem. This guide is designed to help you understand common IoT protocols, power and connectivity requirements.

IoT technology ecosystem

The IoT technology ecosystem is composed of the following layers: devices, data, connectivity and technology users.

Device layer

The combination of sensors, actuators, hardware, software, connectivity and gateways that constitute a device that connects and interacts with a network.

Data layer

The data that’s collected, processed, sent, stored, analysed, presented and used in business contexts.

Business layer

The business functions of IoT technology, including the management of billing and data marketplaces.

User layer

The components that allow humans to interact with IoT devices.

The IoT technology stack part 1:
IoT devices

IoT devices

Here are some common terms related to devices in the IoT technology stack:

Embedded systems

Feature both hardware and software and manage a specific function related to a larger system. Embedded systems are microprocessor based or microcontroller based.

Intelligent devices

These devices have the ability to compute and often include a microcontroller.

Microcontroller unit (MCU)

These small computers are embedded on microchips and contain CPUs, RAM and ROM. Although they contain the elements needed to execute simple tasks, microcontrollers are more limited in power than microprocessors.

Microprocessor unit (MPU)

House the functions of CPUs on single or multiple integrated circuits. Although microprocessors require peripherals to complete tasks, they greatly reduce processing costs because they only contain a CPU.

Non-computing devices

These devices only connect and transmit data and do not have the ability to compute.

Transducers

Physical devices that convert one form of energy into another. In IoT devices, this includes the internal sensors and actuators that transmit data as objects engage with their environment.

  • Actuators

    Take physical actions when their control centre gives instructions, usually due to changes identified by sensors.

  • Sensors

    Detect changes in their environment and create electrical impulses to communicate. Sensors commonly detect environmental shifts such as changes in temperature, chemicals and physical position.

The IoT technology stack part 2:
IoT protocols and connectivity

When planning an IoT project, it’s important to consider how the device will connect and communicate. This will determine which IoT protocols apply to it.

Connecting IoT devices

In the IoT technology stack, devices connect either through gateways or built-in functionality.

What are IoT gateways?

Gateways connect IoT devices to the cloud. Data collected from IoT devices moves through a gateway, gets preprocessed at the edge and then gets sent to the cloud.

Using IoT gateways prolongs battery life, lowers latency and reduces transmission sizes. Gateways also let you connect devices without direct Internet access and provide an additional layer of security by protecting data moving in both directions.

How do I connect IoT devices to the network?

The type of connectivity you need depends on the device, its function and its users. Typically, the distance that the data must travel – either short-range or long-range – determines the type of IoT connectivity needed.

Types of IoT networks

Low-power, short-range networks

These networks are well-suited for homes, offices and other small environments. They lend themselves to small batteries – and in some cases, battery-less setups – and are often inexpensive to operate.

Common examples include:

Bluetooth

Good for high-speed data transfer, Bluetooth sends both voice and data signals up to ten metres.

WiFi/802.11

The low cost of operating WiFi makes it a standard across homes and offices. However, it may not be the right choice for all scenarios because of its limited range and 24/7 energy consumption.

Z-Wave

A mesh network for home appliances to communicate using low-energy radio waves. Z-Wave offers application layer interoperability between home automation systems.

Zigbee

A common choice for home automation and medical devices, Zigbee is best suited for personal area networks with small, low-power low-bandwidth devices in close range.

Low-power, wide-area networks (LPWAN)

Enable communication across a minimum of 500 metres, require minimal power and are used for a majority of IoT devices. For example, long-range wide-area networks (LoRaWANs) connect mobile, secure, bi-directional battery-operated devices.

Common examples include:

4G LTE IoT

Offer high capacity and low latency, making these networks a great choice for IoT scenarios that require real-time information or updates.

5G IoT

Although not yet available, 5G IoT networks are expected to enable further innovations in IoT by providing much faster download speeds and connectivity to many more devices in a given area.

Cat-0

These LTE-based networks are the lowest cost option. They lay the groundwork for Cat-M, a technology that will replace 2G.

Cat-1

This standard for cellular IoT will eventually replace 3G. Cat-1 networks are easy to set up and offer a great solution for applications requiring a voice or browser interface.

LTE Cat-M1

These networks are fully compatible with LTE networks. They optimise cost and power in a second generation of LTE chips designed specifically for IoT applications.

Narrowband

This radio technology standard operates on a subset of the LTE standard. It focuses on indoor coverage and offers low costs and long battery life.

NB-IoT/Cat-M2

Uses direct-sequence spread spectrum (DSSS) modulation to send data directly to the server, eliminating the need for a gateway. Although NB-IoT networks cost more to set up, not requiring a gateway makes them less expensive to run.

Sigfox

This leading global IoT network provider offers wireless networks to connect low-power objects that emit continuous data.

IoT protocols: How IoT devices communicate with the network

IoT devices communicate using IoT protocols. Internet protocol (IP) is a set of rules that dictates how data gets sent to the Internet. IoT protocols ensure that information from one device or sensor gets read and understood by another. Given the diverse array of IoT devices available, using the right protocol in the right context is important.

What IoT protocol is right for me?

The type of IoT protocol you use will depend on the system architecture layer your data needs to travel in. The Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model provides a map of the various layers that send and receive data. Each protocol in the IoT system architecture enables device-to-device, device-to-gateway, gateway-to-data centre or gateway-to-cloud communication, as well as communication between data centres.

Application layer

The application layer serves as the interface between the user and the device.

Advanced Message Queuing Protocol (AMQP)

A software layer that creates interoperability between messaging middleware. It helps a range of systems and applications work together, creating standardised messaging on an industrial scale.

Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP)

A constrained-bandwidth and constrained-network protocol designed for devices with limited capacity to connect in machine-to-machine communication. CoAP is also a document-transfer protocol that runs over User Datagram Protocol (UDP).

Data Distribution Service (DDS)

A versatile peer-to-peer communication protocol that does everything from running tiny devices to connecting high-performance networks. DDS streamlines deployment, increases reliability and reduces complexity.

Message Queue Telemetry Transport (MQTT)

A messaging protocol designed for lightweight machine-to-machine communication and primarily used for low-bandwidth connections to remote locations. MQTT uses a publisher-subscriber pattern and is ideal for small devices that require efficient bandwidth and battery use.

Transport layer

The transport layer enables and safeguards the communication of the data as it travels between layers.

Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)

The dominant protocol for a majority of Internet connectivity. It offers host-to-host communication, breaking large sets of data into individual packets and resending and reassembling packets as needed.

User Datagram Protocol (UDP)

A communications protocol that enables process-to-process communication and runs on top of IP. UDP improves data transfer rates over TCP and best suits applications that require lossless data transmissions.

Network layer

The network layer helps individual devices communicate with the router.

6LoWPAN

A lower-powered version of IPv6 that reduces transmission times.

IPv6

This recent update to IP routes traffic across the Internet and identifies and locates devices on the network.

Data link layer

The data layer transfers data within the system architecture, identifying and correcting errors found in the physical layer.

IEEE 802.15.4

A radio standard for low-powered wireless connection. It’s used with Zigbee, 6LoWPAN and other standards to build wireless embedded networks.

LPWAN

This type of network enables communication across a minimum of 500 metres. LoRaWAN is an example of LPWAN that’s optimised for low power consumption.

Physical layer

The physical layer establishes a communication channel, allowing devices to connect within a specified environment.

Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE)

Dramatically reduces power consumption and cost and maintains a similar connectivity range as classic Bluetooth. BLE works natively across mobile operating systems and is fast becoming a favourite for consumer electronics due to its low cost and long battery life.

Ethernet

This wired connection is a less expensive option that provides fast data connection and low latency.

Long-Term Evolution (LTE)

A wireless broadband communication standard for mobile devices and data terminals. LTE increases the capacity and speed of wireless networks and supports multicast and broadcast streams.

Near-field communication (NFC)

A set of communication protocols using electromagnetic fields that allows two devices to communicate from within four centimetres of each other. NFC-enabled devices function as identity keycards and are commonly used for contactless mobile payments, ticketing and smart cards.

Radio-frequency identification (RFID)

Uses electromagnetic fields to track otherwise unpowered electronic tags. Compatible hardware supplies power and communicate with these tags, reading their information for identification and authentication.

WiFi/802.11

A standard across homes and offices. Although it’s an inexpensive option, it may not suit all scenarios due to its limited range and 24/7 energy consumption.

The IoT technology stack part 3:
IoT platforms

IoT platforms make it easy to build and launch your IoT projects by providing a single service that manages your deployment, devices and data. IoT platforms manage hardware and software protocols, offer security and authentication, and provide user interfaces.

The exact definition of an IoT platform varies because more than 400 service providers offer features that range from software and hardware to SDKs and APIs. However, most IoT platforms include:

  • An IoT cloud gateway
  • Authentication, device management and APIs
  • Cloud infrastructure
  • Third-party app integrations

Managed services

IoT managed services help businesses proactively operate and maintain their IoT ecosystem. A variety of IoT managed services are available to help streamline and support the process of building, deploying, managing and monitoring your IoT project.

How IoT relates to current technologies

Virtual reality and IoT

Used together, virtual reality and IoT can help you to visually contextualise complex systems and make real-time decisions. For example, augmented reality (also known as mixed reality) creates a visual overlay of collected data and has a variety of practical uses when paired with IoT. The combination of virtual reality and IoT have prompted technological advancements in industries such as healthcare, field service, transport and manufacturing.

Quantum computing and IoT

The significant amount of data generated by IoT naturally lends itself to quantum computing’s ability to speed through heavy computation. Additionally, quantum cryptography helps add a level of security that’s required but currently hindered by the low computational power inherent to most IoT devices.

Blockchain and IoT

Currently, there is no way to confirm that data from IoT has not been manipulated before it gets sold or shared. The blockchain and IoT work together to break down data siloes and foster trust so that data can be verified, traced and relied upon.

Open source and IoT

Open-source technologies are accelerating IoT, allowing developers to use the tools of their choice on IoT technology applications.

Serverless and IoT

With the variable traffic of IoT projects, serverless provides a cost-effective way to scale dynamically – without the burden of managing infrastructure.

Kubernetes and IoT

With a zero-downtime deployment model, Kubernetes helps IoT projects stay updated in real time without affecting users. Kubernetes scales easily and efficiently using cloud resources, providing a common platform for deployment to the edge.

AI and IoT

IoT systems gather such massive amounts of data that it’s often necessary to use AI and machine learning to sort and analyse that data so that you can detect patterns and take action on insights. For example, AI can analyse data gathered from manufacturing equipment and predict the need for maintenance, reducing costs and downtime from unexpected breakdowns.

IoT data and analytics

IoT technologies produce such high volumes of data that specialised processes and tools are needed to turn the data into actionable insights.

Common IoT technology applications:

Predictive maintenance

IoT machine learning models designed and trained to identify signals in historical data can be used to identify the same trends in current data. This lets users automate preventative service requests and order new parts ahead of time so that they’re always available when needed.

Real-time decisions

Effective real-time IoT analytics architectures are scaled for high data volumes and low latency. A variety of IoT analytics services are available, with components designed to provide end-to-end real-time reporting, including:

  • High-volume data storage using formats that analytics tools can query.
  • High-volume data stream processing to filter and aggregate data before analysis gets performed.
  • Low-latency analysis turnaround using real-time analytics tools that report and visualise data.
  • Real-time data intake using message brokers.

Common IoT technology challenges:

Data storage

Large data collection leads to large data storage needs. Several data store services are available, varying in capabilities such as organisational structures, authentication protocols and size limits.

Data processing

The volume of data collected through IoT presents challenges for cleaning, processing and interpreting at speed. Edge computing addresses these challenges by shifting most data processing from a centralised system to the edge of the network, closer to the devices that need the data. However, decentralising data processing introduces new challenges, including the reliability and scalability of edge devices and the security of the data in transit.

IoT security, safety and privacy

IoT security and privacy are critical considerations in any IoT project. Although IoT technologies can transform your business operations, IoT devices can pose threats if not properly secured. Cyberattacks can compromise data, ruin equipment and even inflict harm.

Strong IoT cybersecurity reaches beyond standard confidentiality measures to include threat modelling. Understanding the different ways attackers might compromise your system is the first step towards preventing attacks.

Learn more about IoT security

Resources to get started

IoT in the real world: Stories from manufacturing

Learn how business leaders are using IoT to maintain control over data, devices and applications. Gain a better understanding of what it takes to capitalise on IoT technologies and how to get your solution up and running.

Read the e-book

Building IoT solutions with Azure: A developer’s guide

Get an overview of services that address key IoT solution requirements, as well as a step-by-step progression to help you build proficiency and move towards fully functioning solutions quickly.

Explore the guide

Your IoT business needs the right business model

Rethink your current business model or find a new IoT-enabled model that better supports how you interact with your customers. Explore several strategies based on pricing power and revenue recurrence.

Read the e-book

Internet of Things Show

Stay up to date with the latest Microsoft IoT announcements, product and feature demos, customer and partner spotlights, top industry talks, and technical deep dives.

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