The recent announcement that Nest Labs (now Google) acquired Internet of Things (IoT) enabler Revolv Inc. and took it out back and shot it is a reminder that IoT is still hamstrung by the corporate strategies of old. It won't matter how much Cisco invests building hardware to enable interconnected, smart grains of sand if squabbling, territorial, and in this case predatory practices prevent the market from getting behind one standard and moving forward. In this case, Google wants to push its communication protocol, Thread, and Revolv -- among others -- stand in the way.
As network engineers, how are we supposed to support, let alone foster, IoT if we have to keep playing the same 30-year-old protocol games?
Let's go all the way back to X-10, which actually predated its inescapable -- and even licentious -- pop-up ad infamy in the early 2000s by almost 20 years. If you wanted to connect to an X-10 thingamajig, you needed an X-10 controller. New smart things vendors didn't like X-10, so they launched their own protocols, and not just edge technology like SmartHome INSTEON, but General Electric, Honeywell, Kwikset, Leviton and Schlage got together and put millions of dollars behind Z-Wave. And despite this, there are still no de-facto controllers available at the Home Depot, even after a decade. With every manufacturer promoting its own closed technology over interoperability, nothing has happened for two decades. Revolv saw an opportunity to change this.
We all have a dog in this hunt
Revolv's approach was that of a pragmatic network engineer --rather than build something new, it saw value in making what was already installed (and paid for) work. So, it put seven radios using 10 protocols in one master hub. For the first time, automation enthusiasts could realize their investments, with Insteon and Z-Wave lighting connected to X-10 pool pump controls, Bali motorized blinds --whatever.
I admit, I had two dogs in this hunt (both a Nest and a Revolv) and I am somewhat frustrated that I now have to send back my first Philips Hue Lightstrip, which arrived yesterday. It was going to be really cool using different color programs behind my headboard for morning wake-ups and winding down at the end of the day. Boeing 787 mode. I'm sending it back for the same reason I won't provision enterprise switches from a no-name vendor -- we demand a modicum of interoperability and support, damn it!
It's the lack of stability and territorial manufacturers that threaten to ground IoT before it ever makes it to the runway. Google believes that if it eliminates all competitors to Thread through predatory practices, it can control the IoT ecosystem, or at least make conditions most favorable for it. But that's not how networks work: Networks at their cores are open conduits, based on standard protocols that let the best devices and software win with happy admins and the widest possible adoption rates. I don't mean to pick on Google too much; it could just as easily have been Apple, Facebook, AT&T or any other network operator who'd love to corner the market on IoT. The point here is that the entire idea of one vendor trying to control a communications market by destroying -- rather than fostering -- innovation is a broken strategy of a bygone age.
IoT will succeed or fail based on how positively it's promoted to a largely non-technical public, how easy it is to use and how adept vendors are at connecting product education and evangelism with their brand. As network architects and administrators expected to support IoT, we'll shy away from technology turmoil -- it's not in our nature to sign up to build things more than once. We strive to get our network performance monitoring, firewalls, traffic analysis and topology all sorted out. If we have to rethink our firewall security policy every time vendors launch a new IoT protocol, we'll tend to just sit it out and wait for consensus. That's a chicken versus egg spiral no one can win -- admins resisting yet another new protocol, while vendors can't gain traction and are ultimately superseded by the Next Big Thing.
Maybe we're not just ready
Not to further overload the expression, "This is why we can't have nice things," but perhaps this newest bump in the road for IoT is actually a good thing. Maybe we, as a world of vendors, consumers and administrators, aren't quite ready for a time where anything you encounter might be on the Internet. Maybe we're not ready to answer the enormous privacy, control and information questions IoT raises. But one thing is certain: censorship should not be a factor in limiting social, political or technological innovation. IoT devices must be easily interoperable, supporting multiple protocols from many vendors or the low price-points required for success can't be reached. If "Works with Nest" means "Won’t work unless you have Nest," IoT may never reach its full potential.
About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization, with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at Patrick.Hubbard@solarwinds.com