The Internet of Things: Understanding Networks

Posted by Knar Bedian on Mar 11, 2016 1:41:21 PM


There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the Internet of Things (IoT) but how does it really work? It sounds simple enough: two elements – devices and networks – work together as a system to gather data and offer users control.

Devices and Networks

IoT devices can range from the familiar – smartphones and personal computers – to newer and emerging technologies, like wearables, manufacturing equipment, home automation products, smart cars, and other units of hardware that can send or receive data. In an enterprise context, IoT refers to the connected devices equipped with embedded software that allows for communication with a custom built application on a smartphone or computer.

Devices can read and analyze information collected by sensors, which can be placed within devices, objects, and machinery. Sensors detect, measure, and record information about the physical environment, such as light, heat, pressure, and motion.

Though IoT cannot exist without devices, it’s the network that allows them to communicate and form the Internet of Things. Unfortunately it’s also the network that makes the workings of IoT seem complicated, partly because of the intangible nature of networks. Networks are wireless connectivity options, the most familiar and prevalent of which is WiFi

Types of Networks

There are three major network topologies in IoT: point-to-point, hub-and-spoke, and mesh networks. Let’s break down the types of networks present in current IoT arrangements:


Point-to-point networks, also known as device-to-device (D2D), involves communication between two devices. These one-to-one relationships are already prevalent. A simple example would be wireless speakers that connect to a laptop: the network formed is like a private conversation between two people.

In other types of networks, like the mesh network which we’ll explain later, connecting one device to other devices extends the range of the network. However, for point-to-point networks this is not the case. A wireless mouse and a set of wireless speakers that are both connected to the same computer form independent networks– the mouse and computer have one, the speakers and computer have another.


Hub-and-Spoke Networks

In a hub and spoke network — also know as a ‘one to many arrangement’ or a ‘star’ formation — a set of devices connect to a dedicated central device, or hub. WiFi uses a hub-and-spoke setup: multiple devices can connect to a single wireless router.

Today, most smart home automation systems rely on a hub-and-spoke setup, in which there is a single hub that connects all of the devices. Unfortunately, this means there’s also a single point of failure— if the hub goes down, so too, does the entire network.

Mesh Networks

A mesh network acts like a wireless “fog” that connects devices within its range. There is no designated central device; instead, one device becomes the “leader.” All of the devices in the network directly connect with one another, creating a web of devices that makes it easier to extend both the range and the size of the network.

Unlike point-to-point or hub-and-spoke, multiple devices in the network have the ability to relay information. By signal hopping, devices that would be too far apart to communicate over a point-to-point network can do so in a mesh network by using intermediate devices, the signal hopping from one to the next, to reach the final destination device.  

A strength of the mesh network is that the devices in a mesh network can automatically reconfigure themselves. If the leader device leaves the network, another can be designated as the leader. Devices can drop out of or join a mesh network without affecting the network's overall strength. So, if one device goes down, the other devices will keep the network up.

Popular examples of mesh network protocols include Zigbee, Z-Wave, Thread, and Insteon.


Is There a “Best” Type of Network?

It depends on the use case. Some network protocols are more popular for certain settings. For networks that span large areas, a point-to-point setup will not be sufficient. Point-to-point networks thrive for one-to-one communication; for example, between communication between a fitness device and smartphone. It’s likely point-to-point networks will continue to be prevalent in the wearables space. Hub-and-spoke networks are already prevalent for connecting devices to the internet via WiFi networks, and they currently power a number of major brands of home automation.

However, many of the network protocols – the “language” or type of network, like Thread– being used in IoT are either already a mesh network, like Thread, Zigbee and Z-Wave, or, like Bluetooth, have announced plans to adopt mesh networking. Already many of the most well-known consumer IoT products, like the Nest thermostat and the Philips Hue smart lightbulbs, utilize mesh networks.

Mesh networks also hold much potential beyond the home setting. For an industrial space, the wide-reaching range of mesh networking can be essential to ensuring smooth communication between machinery and corresponding computing systems. A “smart city” would also likely require mesh networking, as a hub-and-spoke setup would risk outages should a hub go down.

Because of its wide range, ability to support multiple devices, and the fact that devices can join and leave a network without affecting the network’s overall strength, most parts of the world of IoT have adopted, and are moving towards adopting, mesh networking.  


Want to learn more about IoT technologies? Join in on March 16th for our webinar where we’ll dive into the topic with our engineers and Procter & Gamble. Learn more and register here.

Topics: Internet of Things, Networks