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The IoT communication protocols

Published on 11/10/2016 | Technology

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James Stansberry

A market focused and performance orientated leader with success achieving revenue, profit, and business growth within start-up, turnaround, and transitioning organizations. World class experience in R&D, device, software and system development; identifying strategic drivers in emerging markets; collaboratively managing teams and delivering results to investors and customers. Proven financial results in secure, robust and cost effective software and solutions for connected ecosystems, gateways and devices. A lifetime learner, amateur athlete and health advocate with a harmonized professional and personal interest in connected devices and analytics.



A fascinating article from Philip N. Howard at George Washington University asserts that based on multiple sources, the number of connected devices surpassed the number of people on the planet in 2014. Further, it estimates that by 2020 we will be approaching 50 billion devices on the Internet of Things (IoT).

In other words, while humans will continue to connect their devices to the web in greater numbers, a bigger explosion will come from “things” connecting to the web that weren’t before, or which didn’t exist, or which now use their connection as more of a core feature.

The question is, how will these billions of things communicate between the end node, the cloud, and the service provider?

This article dives into that subject as it relates to a particular class of devices that are very low cost, battery-powered, and which must operate at least seven years without any manual intervention.

Messaging protocols for “lightweight” IoT nodes

In particular, it looks at two emerging messaging protocols to address the needs of these “lightweight” IoT nodes. The first, MQTT, is very old by today’s standards from way back in 1999. And the second, CoAP, is relatively new but gaining traction.

IoT Communication Protocol Requirements

One definition of IoT is connecting devices to the internet that were not previously connected. A factory owner may connect high-powered lights. A triathlete may connect a battery-powered heart-rate monitor. A home or building automation provider may connect a wireless sensor with no line power source.

But the important thing here is that in all the above cases the “Thing” must communicate through the Internet to be considered an “IoT” node.

Since it must use the Internet, it must also adhere to the Internet Engineering Task Force’s (IETF) Internet Protocol Suite. However, the Internet has historically connected resource-rich devices with lots of power, memory and connection options. As such, its protocols have been considered too heavy to apply wholesale for applications in the emerging IoT.

There are other aspects of the IoT which also drive modifications to IETF’s work. In particular, networks of IoT end nodes will be lossy, and the devices attached to them will be very low power, saddled with constrained resources, and expected to live for years.

The requirements for both the network and its end devices might look like the table below. This new model needs new, lighter weight protocols that don’t require the large amount of resources.

MQTT and CoAP address these needs through small message sizes, message management, and lightweight message overhead. We look at each below.

MQTT and CoAP: Lightweight IoT Communications Protocols

MQTT and CoAP allow for communication from Internet-based resource-rich devices to IoT-based resource-constrained devices. Both CoAP and MQTT implement a lightweight application layer, leaving much of the error correction to message retries, simple reliability strategies, or reliance on more resource rich devices for post-processing of raw end-node data.

MQTT Overview

IBM invented Message Queuing Telemetry Transport (MQTT) for satellite communications with oil field equipment. It had reliability and low power at its core and so made good sense to be applied to IoT networks.

The MQTT standard has since been adopted by the OASIS open standards society and released as version 3.1.1. It is also supported within the Eclipse community, as well as by many commercial companies who offer open source stacks and consulting.

MQTT uses a “publish/subscribe” model, and requires a central MQTT broker to manage and route messages among an MQTT network’s nodes. Eclipse describes MQTT as “a many-to-many communication protocol for passing messages between multiple clients through a central broker.”

MQTT uses TCP for its transport layer, which is characterized as “reliable, ordered and error-checked.”

MQTT Strengths

Publish / Subscribe Model

MQTT’s “pub/sub” model scales well and can be power efficient. Brokers and nodes publish information and others subscribe according to the message content, type, or subject. (These are MQTT standard terms.) Generally the broker subscribes to all messages and then manages information flow to its nodes.

There are several specific benefits to the Pub/Sub model.

Space decoupling

While the node and the broker need to have each other’s IP address, nodes can publish information and subscribe to other nodes’ published information without any knowledge of each other since everything goes through the central broker. This reduces overhead that can accompany TCP sessions and ports, and allows the end nodes to operate independently of one another.

Time decoupling

A node can publish its information regardless of other nodes’ states. Other nodes can then receive the published information from the broker when they are active. This allows nodes to remain in sleepy states even when other nodes are publishing messages directly relevant to them.

Synchronization decoupling

A node that in the midst of one operation is not interrupted to receive a published message to which it is subscribed. The message is queued by the broker until the receiving node is finished with its existing operation. This saves operating current and reduces repeated operations by avoiding interruptions of on-going operations or sleepy states.


MQTT uses unencrypted TCP and is not “out-of-the-box” secure. But because it uses TCP it can – and should – use TLS/SSL internet security. TLS is a very secure method for encrypting traffic but is also resource intensive for lightweight clients due to its required handshake and increased packet overhead. For networks where energy is a very high priority and security much less so, encrypting just the packet payload may suffice.

MQTT Quality of Service (QoS) levels

The term “QoS” means other things outside of MQTT. In MQTT, “QoS” levels 0, 1 and 2 describe increasing levels of guaranteed message delivery.

MQTT QoS Level 0 (At most once)

This is commonly known as “Fire and forget” and is a single transmit burst with no guarantee of message arrival. This might be used for highly repetitive message types or non-mission critical messages.

MQTT QoS Level 1 (At least once)

This attempts to guarantee a message is received at least once by the intended recipient. Once a published messaged is received and understood by the intended recipient, it acknowledges the message with an acknowledgement message (PUBACK) addressed to the publishing node. Until the PUBACK is received by the publisher, it stores the message and retransmits it periodically. This type of message may be useful for a non-critical node shutdown.

MQTT QoS Level 2 (Exactly once)

This level attempts to guarantee the message is received and decoded by the intended recipient. This is the most secure and reliable MQTT level of QoS.  The publisher sends a message announcing it has a QoS level 2 message. Its intended recipient gathers the announcement, decodes it and indicates that it is ready to receive the message. The publisher relays its message. Once the recipient understands the message, it completes the transaction with an acknowledgement. This type of message may be useful for turning on or off lights or alarms in a home.

Last Will and Testament

MQTT provides a “last will and testament (LWT)” message that can be stored in the MQTT broker in case a node is unexpectedly disconnected from the network. This LWT retains the node’s state and purpose, including the types of commands it published and its subscriptions. If the node disappears, the broker notifies all subscribers of the node’s LWT. And if the node returns, the broker notifies it of its prior state. This feature accommodates lossy networks and scalability nicely.

Flexible topic subscriptions

An MQTT node may subscribe to all messages within a given functionality. For example a kitchen “oven node” may subscribe to all messages for “kitchen/oven/+”, with the “+” as a wildcard. This allows for a minimal amount of code (i.e., memory and cost). Another example is if a node in the kitchen is interested in all temperature information regardless of the end node’s functionality. In this case, “kitchen/+/temp” will collect any message in the kitchen from any node reporting “temp”. There are other equally useful MQTT wildcards for reducing code footprint and therefore memory size and cost.

Issues with MQTT

Central Broker

The use of a central broker can be a drawback for distributed IoT systems. For example, a system may start small with a remote control and window shade, thus requiring no central broker. Then as the system grows, for example adding security sensors, light bulbs, or other window shades, the network naturally grows and expands and may have need of a central broker. However, none of the individual nodes wants to take on the cost and responsibility as it requires resources, software and complexity not core to the end-node function.

In systems that already have a central broker, it can become a single point of failure for the complete network. For example, if the broker is a powered node without a battery back-up, then battery-powered nodes may continue operating during an electrical outage while the broker is off-line, thus rendering the network inoperable.


TCP was originally designed for devices with more memory and processing resources than may be available in a lightweight IoT-style network. For example, the TCP protocol requires that connections be established in a multi-step handshake process before any messages are exchanged. This drives up wake-up and communication times, and reduces battery life over the long run.

Also in TCP it is ideal for two communicating nodes to hold their TCP sockets open for each other continuously with a persistent session, which again may be difficult with energy- and resource-constrained devices.

Wake-up time

Again, using TCP without session persistence can require incremental transmit time for connection establishment. For nodes with periodic, repetitive traffic, this can lead to lower operating life.

CoAP Overview

With the growing importance of the IoT, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)took on lightweight messaging and defined the Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP). As defined by the IETF, CoAP is for “use with constrained nodes and constrained (e.g., low-power, lossy) networks.” The Eclipse community also supports CoAP as an open standard, and like MQTT, CoAP is commercially supported and growing rapidly with IoT providers.

CoAP is a client/server protocol and provides a one-to-one “request/report” interaction model with accommodations for multi-cast, although multi-cast is still in early stages of IETF standardization. Unlike MQTT, which has been adapted to IoT needs from a decades-old protocol, the IETF specified CoAP from the outset to support IoT with lightweight messaging for constrained devices operating in a constrained environment. CoAP is designed to interoperate with HTTP and the RESTful web through simple proxies, making it natively compatible to the Internet.

Strengths of CoAP

Native UDP

CoAP runs over UDP which is inherently and intentionally less reliable than TCP, depending on repetitive messaging for reliability instead of consistent connections. For example, a temperature sensor may send an update every few seconds even though nothing has changed from one transmission to the next. If a receiving node misses one update, the next will arrive in a few seconds and is likely not much different than the first.

UDP’s connectionless datagrams also allow for faster wake-up and transmit cycles as well as smaller packets with less overhead. This allows devices to remain in a sleepy state for longer periods of time conserving battery power.

Multi-cast Support

A CoAP network is inherently one-to-one; however it allows for one-to-many or many-to-many multi-cast requirements. This is inherent in CoAP because it is built on top of IPv6 which allows for multicast addressing for devices in addition to their normal IPv6 addresses. Note that multicast message delivery to sleeping devices is unreliable or can impact the battery life of the device if it must wake regularly to receive these messages.


CoAP uses DTLS on top of its UDP transport protocol. Like TCP, UDP is unencrypted but can be – and should be – augmented with DTLS.

Resource / Service Discovery

CoAP uses URI to provide a standard presentation and interaction expectations for network nodes. This allows a degree of autonomy in the message packets since the target node’s capabilities are partly understood by its URI details. In other words, a battery-powered sensor node may have one type of URI while a line-powered flow control actuator may have another. Nodes communicating to the battery-powered sensor node might be programmed to expect longer response times, more repetitive information, and limited message types. Nodes communicating to the line-powered flow control actuator might be programmed to expect rich, detailed messages, very rapidly.

Asynchronous Communication

Within the CoAP protocol, most messages are sent and received using the request/report model; however, there are other modes of operation that allow nodes to be somewhat decoupled. For example, CoAP has a simplified “observe” mechanism similar to MQTT’s pub/sub that allows nodes to observe others without actively engaging them.

As an example of the “observe” mode, node 1 can observe node 2 for specific transmission types, then any time node 2 publishes a relevant message, node 1 receives it when it awakens and queries another node. It’s important to note that one of the network nodes must hold messages for observers. This is similar to MQTT’s broker model except that there is no broker requirement in CoAP, and therefore no expectation of being able to hold or queue messages for observers.

There are currently draft additions to the standard which may provide a similar CoAP function to MQTT’s pub/sub model over the short-to-medium term. The leading candidate today is a draft proposal from Michael Koster, allowing CoAP networks to implement a pub/sub model like MQTT’s mentioned above.  

Issues with CoAP

Standard Maturity

MQTT is currently a more mature and stable standard than CoAP. It’s been Silicon Labs’ experience that it is easier to get an MQTT network up and running very quickly than a similar one using CoAP. That said, CoAP has tremendous market momentum and is rapidly evolving to provide a standardized foundation with important add-ons in the ratification pipeline now.

It is likely that CoAP will reach a similar level of stability and maturity as MQTT in the very near term. But the standard is evolving for now, which may present some troubles with interoperability.

Message Reliability (QoS level)

CoAP’s “reliability” is MQTT’s QoS and provides a very simple method of providing a “confirmable” message and a “non-confirmable” message. The confirmable message is acknowledged with an acknowledgement message (ACK) from the intended recipient. This confirms the message is received but stops short of confirming that its contents were decoded correctly or at all. A non-confirmable message is “fire and forget.”


The two messaging protocols MQTT and CoAP are emerging as leading lightweight messaging protocols for the booming IoT market. Each has benefits and each has issues. As leaders in mesh networking where lightweight nodes are a necessary aspect of almost every network, Silicon Labs has implemented both protocols, including gateway bridging logic to allow for inter-standard communication.

Further Reading


Specification - http://docs.oasis-open.org/mqtt/mqtt/v3.1.1/os/mqtt-v3.1.1-os.html

Excellent source for MQTT information – http://www.hivemq.com/mqtt-essentials-wrap-up/


Specification - https://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc7252

Excellent source for CoAP information - http://coap.technology/


Specification – http://mqtt.org/2013/12/mqtt-for-sensor-networks-mqtt-sn

General coverage of IoT messaging protocols

Excellent white paper on using MQTT, CoAP, and other messaging protocols – http://www.prismtech.com/sites/default/files/documents/MessagingComparsionNov2013USROW_vfinal.pdf


This article was originally posted on LinkedIn.

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