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Know your real-time protocols for IoT apps

Kurt Collins | Aug. 19, 2015
The XMPP, CoAP, and MQTT protocols have distinct pros and cons; here’s a quick rundown of the trade-offs.

CoAP is a simple request/response protocol (again, very similar to REST) that follows a traditional client/server model. Clients can make GET, PUT, POST, and DELETE requests to resources. CoAP packets use bitfields to maximize memory efficiency, and they make extensive usage of mappings from strings to integers to keep the data packets small enough to transport and interpret on-device. Aside from the extremely small packet size, another major advantage of CoAP is its usage of UDP; using datagrams allows for CoAP to be run on top of packet-based technologies like SMS.

All CoAP messages can be marked as either “confirmable” or “nonconfirmable,” serving as an application-level QoS. While SSL/TLS encryption isn’t available over UDP, CoAP makes use of Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS), which is analogous to the TCP version of TLS. The default level of encryption is equivalent to a 3,072-bit RSA key. Even with all of this, CoAP is designed to work on microcontrollers with as little as 10KB of RAM.

One of the downsides of CoAP: It's a one-to-one protocol. Though extensions that make group broadcasts possible are available, broadcast capabilities are not inherent to the protocol. Arguably, an even more important disadvantage is the lack of a publish-subscribe message queue.

Message Queue Telemetry Transport (MQTT) is a publish-subscribe messaging protocol. Similar to CoAP, it was built with resource-constrained devices in mind. MQTT has a lightweight packet structure designed to conserve both memory usage and power. A connected device subscribes to a topic hosted on an MQTT broker. Every time another device or service publishes data to a topic, all of the devices subscribed to it will automatically get the updated information.

The major advantages of MQTT are the publish-subscribe message queue and the many-to-many broadcast capabilities. Using a long-lived outgoing TCP connection to the MQTT broker, sending messages of limited bandwidth back and forth is simple and straightforward.

The downside of having an always-on connection is that it limits the amount of time the devices can be put to sleep. If the device mostly sleeps, then another MQTT protocol can be used: MQTT-S, which works with UDP instead of TCP.

Understanding the underlying protocols will be important for every developer who wants to take full advantage of IoT technology. As the space heats up, there will be more questions about what is required to create efficient communication between devices. More important, for those creating APIs that not only interact with devices but also control them, real-time communications will be an absolute necessity. What started out as a way for people to communicate instantaneously via the Internet has turned into something much more versatile.


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