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How To Identify Which Type Of IoT Module You Need

There is much that goes into IoT application creation and development. In addition to understanding system design, you’ll also need to understand the following:

  • How your device will connect to the internet.
  • How you’re going to provide your device with credentials.
  • How your device will be set up and managed.
  • How to select an IoT module for your device.

And while picking an Internet of Things connectivity module isn’t the first step you’ll take, it’s an important one. We’ve outlined some of the most popular IoT module types in this article, so you can understand what will work best for you.

ZigBee

ZigBee is used for building low power, short-range mesh networks. If the mesh is well designed and well distributed—meaning it has a relatively dense number of nodes—it has the ability to cover a large area. If there are holes in the mesh, the true range performance is pretty limited.

We’ve seen some application creators struggle to sell products that use ZigBee’s hardware because their customers don’t design the mesh properly (and then have numerous issues to deal with). It’s worth noting that there are other proprietary versions of ZigBee that can work really well, like MeshConnect from CEL. This product is especially popular for smart home and energy solutions.

6LoWPAN & Thread

6LoWPAN and Thread are rapidly growing standards. They are low power versions of IP-based communications that allow end nodes to use 6LoWPAN instead of WiFi to communicate back to access points. Google and Nest are big proponents of these technologies. We at Link Labs can’t use 6LoWPAN because the header size is too large for our technology, but this is certainly a space to watch. If 6LoWPAN becomes a standard type of wireless (especially in homes), it’ll be an attractive module option.

The issue here is that you need a bridge from 6LoWPAN to ethernet somewhere in the system. The Nest thermostat, for example, acts as that bridge—the thermostat has a WiFi chip and a Thread chip in it. But, in order for 6LoWPAN to work with an application, you have to sell some kind of access point that can connect to the internet.

Read more: 6LoWPAN vs. ZigBee: Two Wireless Technologies Explained

Z-Wave

Z-Wave is a closed ecosystem of sub-GHz RF devices that work very well together. People tend to like Z-Wave because its range is very good, it’s very easy to use, and it has good interoperability. For significant home automation, it’s definitely more popular than ZigBee.

Like Thread and 6LoWPAN, Z-Wave needs its own proprietary access point or gateway. So, in addition to selling a product, you also have to sell an access point. This makes your go-to marketing strategy more complex, which is a downside.

WiFi

WiFi modules give users an easy gateway to the internet. If you’re selling an IoT solution like a smart thermostat, which is made for homes and businesses that are already WiFi-connected, WiFi is a go-to option.

One big issue issue with WiFi is provisioning: How can you get the password for the customer’s network onto the device? Someone has to type it in, and that’s a major headache for many customers. Things like WiFi protected setup (WPS) were created in response to this issue. WPS was supposed to allow customers to push a device on their routers and allow devices to join for a short period of time. But, they were never standardized and are still not used regularly.

It’s also important to consider WiFi from a security perspective. If you use a connected product that has a WiFi module in it, you must understand that you are now operating a device inside someone's network. Thus, you need to be a good steward and make sure you are not creating vulnerabilities for that network.

Power budget is another issue. We don’t think you’ll find very many battery-powered WiFi IoT applications out there, because staying connected to WiFi is relatively power intensive.

Bluetooth

This is a really interesting use case, because customers actually carry the Bluetooth-to-internet bridge around in their pocket. The Apple iBeacon ecosystem is one type of software development kit (SDK) that provides a persistent Bluetooth-to-internet connection that runs in the background.

For example, with the use of a product like Gimbal's Proximity Beacon, Bluetooth-enabled devices can feed data from a person’s phone to the internet without them knowing it. If someone has the ESPN app running in the background of her phone, and she walks into a store with a Proximity Beacon in use, store owners can tell she’s in their store without her ever knowing it. These kinds of real-life use cases make Bluetooth and Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) an interesting module option.

Cellular

The advantages of using a cellular module are that it offers ubiquitous coverage and is an out-of-the-box solution. The issues with cellular lie in provisioning and subscription management. You don’t want to be stuck paying for data for a bunch of products that are still sitting on the shelf.

There are a lot of companies in the mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) space—like KORE Wireless—or strictly in the device management space—like Jasper—that make that process easier. Aeris is another really good company that makes getting a data plan for your IoT devices easier, and we’ve seen it in use a lot more lately.

Symphony Link

Symphony Link is our low power, wide-area network (LPWAN) solution. If you need excellent range performance or link margin for robust industrial-type applications that are very power constrained, we’re a good alternative. It’s worth noting that Symphony Link offers longer range than any of these other technologies with the exception of cellular. Here is where you can find our IoT modules and other products you'll need.

Keep the following in mind:

We highly suggest you design your whole IoT system from a go-to-market perspective before you start picking technologies. These technologies are all great for specific use cases, but they’re not be-all and end-all solutions. It’s important you don’t fall in love with an underlying technology, because at the end of the day, engineers and product developers need to see wireless connectivity as a tool that provides the access to value and not as the value itself.

Questions about any of these IoT modules? Reach out to us—we’d love to help.Asset Tracking and Monitoring in the IoT

Written by Brian Ray

Brian is the Founder and CTO of Link Labs. As the chief technical innovator and leader of the company, Brian has led the creation and deployment of a new type of ultra long-range, low-power wireless networking which is transforming the Internet of Things and M2M space.

Before starting Link Labs, Brian led a team at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab that solved communications and geolocation problems for the national intelligence community. He was also the VP of Engineering at the network security company, Lookingglass, and served for eight years as a submarine officer in the U.S. Navy. He graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and received his Master’s Degree from Oxford University.

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