Internet of Things

Things Talking to Other Things about Things

By: Andrew Sullivan, Dave Thaler

Date: July 6, 2016

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The IETF is about interoperation. Rough consensus and running code are all about making diverse things work together as much as possible. One of the places that things—in this case, “Things”—need to line up is in the application layer.

For the Internet of Things (IoT) to become the reality many popular accounts would suggest, various kinds of Things need to be able to talk to one another, and not only at the lowest levels. For example, one promise of the Internet of Things is that the lights and the thermostat and the garage door can all collaborate to make your house more comfortable. And the whole system is likely to be better overall if each part works together, no matter who made each device—just the way the Internet has grown and succeeded.

A key theme of Dave Thaler and Hannes Tschofenig’s talk at the IETF 92 Technical Plenary was the duplication and gratuitous differences arising from many organizations independently defining data models, or schemas, for each type of IoT device. For example, there were already many different definitions of what a light bulb was! As a follow-up to help tackle this problem, the Internet Architecture Board organized the Internet of Things Semantic Interoperability (IoTSI)  workshop held 17–18 March 2016.

Facing this issue brought many people together, including, but not only, those who participate in the IETF, World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), Open Mobile Alliance (OMA), AllSeen Alliance, Open Connectivity Foundation (OCF), National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), CableLabs, ZigBee, and European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). We convened at the IoTSI workshop in the Ericsson offices in Santa Clara, California. For two days, we tried to work out ways to improve semantic interoperability. How can diverse systems interoperate? Are better standards in information models or data models needed? Is a single framework necessary or is some sort of mapping possible? What can you do when frameworks are formally incompatible? And what do we do about end-to-end security when intermediate security models are incompatible?

One of the very encouraging items from the workshop is that people from many different sectors of the industry all agree that there is a serious problem to be solved. Some groups had already started developing common solutions for some things, and the level of information sharing across the group was quite remarkable. This is how interoperation works best: not by trying to impose a single model, but by people with different interests all recognizing a common problem.

Of course, recognition is just a first step. Work still needs to be done to move from recognition to results. While a workshop report is in progress, more important are the follow-on activities. We agreed to start with a wiki to provide pointers to schema repositories, with further developments to follow. We in the IETF, in other SDOs, and in industry have an opportunity to make interoperability in the Internet of Things the positive force that earlier Internet innovations were. Interoperation is what we do, so let’s do it again.

For more information on the IoTSI workshop, visit