Get smart about smart home gateways

May 02, 2017

Now that manufacturers of smart home products are getting a better handle on how to connect products to the Internet of Things (IoT), they need to foc...

Now that manufacturers of smart home products are getting a better handle on how to connect products to the Internet of Things (IoT), they need to focus on how their products will connect and interoperate with lots of other smart home products.

One approach that’s often suggested is an IoT gateway — more specifically, an intelligent IoT gateway. IoT gateways, which have been used more extensively in the Industrial IoT (IIoT) than in consumer IoT environments such as smart homes, mediate between edge systems (such as IoT devices and sensors) and the IoT cloud. They perform functions such as translating across disparate sensor and wireless protocols, aggregating communications among multiple sensor-enabled devices, and providing security and management capabilities beyond what individual edge devices can deliver on their own.

In the smart home, many manufacturers view gateways as an appealing central controller for their connected-home products. But gateways have certain limitations, and they aren’t appropriate for all situations. Manufacturers need to evaluate whether an IoT, or smart home, gateway supports their overall IoT strategies.

Here is some guidance for how and when to choose an IoT gateway, and how to fit it into IoT product development efforts.

Start with the right questions

As with every other aspect of the IoT, it’s important to begin with a comprehensive strategy and by asking the right questions. Manufacturers of smart home products considering an IoT gateway might want to ask themselves the following questions:

  • For our low-cost, low-power connected devices, how can we control multiple devices together?
  • What kinds of other smart home devices, services, and apps will our IoT products want or need to interoperate with?
  • How much intelligence can or should our smart home devices contain — given processing, memory, size, power, cost, and other constraints — and how much intelligence should be offloaded from the devices themselves?
  • What is the best way to secure our smart home products and the data they generate?
  • If we decide to use a smart home gateway approach, how should we plan for the inevitable future changes in technologies, product categories, and customer demands that lie ahead?

Situations where an IoT gateway makes sense

It should be clear by now that the real benefit of IoT connectivity, and where opportunities for significant return on investment (ROI) lie, is derived from using the IoT data that devices generate. Simply connecting a device to the internet doesn’t allow for the level of data aggregation and analysis required to extract meaningful ROI.

An intelligent IoT gateway can enable relatively ‘dumb’ sensors, actuators, control devices, and other simple edge devices—using different communications protocols—to coordinate their efforts without having to agree on common protocols. Each of these edge devices needs only connect to the IoT gateway, which has the higher-level ability to aggregate and process the data from disparate IoT devices.

All the edge devices connected to the IoT gateway can benefit from the gateway’s security, management, and control functionality. The security capabilities are particularly important, because highly constrained edge devices, such as simple battery-operated devices, are unable to support the level of network security needed to thwart hackers and protect users’ private data.

IoT gateways have found their way into IIoT applications such as building automation and factory automation, where a major challenge is to integrate large numbers of legacy or minimally intelligent devices into a cohesive, secure, centrally managed system.

One limitation of IoT gateways, however, is that they don’t necessarily include a way to connect to the cloud. IoT gateways, due to their natural complexity, have also remained relatively closed, historically supporting devices from a single manufacturer, or from one manufacturer’s approved ecosystem of partners.

In a smart home scenario, it’s easy to imagine that some IoT products will have more need to work with particular types of other IoT devices. You could establish ‘subsystems’ of connected products and services that include, for example:

  • Thermostat, HVAC systems, ceiling fans, window blinds, lighting, energy management, weather services
  • water heater, water softener, shower system, clothes washer, dishwasher, energy management, water management
  • security system, door locks, window and door sensors, fire and smoke alarms
  • alarm clock, coffee maker, toaster, microwave, news service, lighting

If any of those subsystems include significant numbers of small, low-powered devices with limited processing capabilities, an IoT or smart home gateway can work really well. But IoT gateways add less value for edge devices able to handle more of their own processing load. And IoT gateways alone typically offer no easy way to establish cloud connections.

The next question for manufacturers of connected devices interested in IoT gateways is: Is it best to build the IoT gateway or buy one, possibly a white-labeled gateway? The answer is simple: Unless a manufacturing company has the specific experience and expertise to build its own IoT hub, using a white-labeled IoT gateway can cut costs and help get connected products to market faster. A ready-made IoT gateway allows manufacturers to focus on their own products, without siphoning investment to areas outside their core business.

Role of an IoT platform in conjunction with gateways

Adding IoT cloud connectivity to a gateway can be achieved by integrating it with a comprehensive IoT platform, such as the one from Ayla Networks. In addition to IoT cloud connectivity, combining an IoT gateway with an IoT platform enables manufacturers of smart home solutions to:

  • Connect the products on the gateway with other connected products, services, and apps that are not on the gateway but that use the same IoT platform.
  • Integrate, analyze, and use IoT data from an entire ecosystem of IoT devices, apps, and services—not only those that are part of the IoT gateway ecosystem.
  • Use the IoT platform to enable connectivity to the gateway, thus extending access easily and affordably to the low-power, low-cost edge devices on the gateway.
  • Deliver IoT security not only among their edge devices connected to the gateway, but also to the cloud and to the mobile or web apps used to control the smart home solutions.
  • Extend new platform-level IoT capabilities—such as voice control, security updates, and new third-party services—throughout the entire IoT platform ecosystem, including all the edge devices connected to the IoT gateway.
  • Scale IoT offerings efficiently from tens to millions of devices by scaling at both the gateway and IoT platform levels.

IoT gateways are not a panacea for manufacturers of smart home devices. But used in the right situations, and used in coordination with a comprehensive IoT platform, IoT gateways can play an important role in the continued growth of smart home solutions.

Justin Ruiz is product marketing manager at Ayla Networks in Santa Clara, California.

Justin Ruiz, Ayla Networks