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Is Bluetooth mesh the answer to IoT growing pains?

Early adopters of the Internet of Things are discovering that along with its benefits are several pain points — from security to bandwidth issues. But brand-new mesh networking capabilities in the Bluetooth 5 wireless standard could ease some of these pains for network pros.


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Rolling out IoT in the enterprise isn’t going to be easy.

Along with all the promise it holds, the Internet of Things brings a few (inevitable) pain points with it as well. As more organizations adopt IoT, however, we’re starting to get some early snapshots of what those growing pains are, and how enterprises are coping with them so far.

When 100 IT pros who oversee IoT deployment were surveyed by EMA earlier this year, they spelled out their top IoT pain point very clearly: security. “IoT security concerns are pervasive. Networking professionals identified security as a challenge in all aspects of IoT planning, engineering and operations,” the survey’s authors stated.

According to the report, 52 per cent of respondents said “IoT has created or worsened blind spots in their network monitoring architecture. Among those reporting blind spots, 40 per cent have experienced a security breach.”

Getting even more specific, the study concludes that “IoT devices often have power and computing constraints that limit the network team’s ability to manage and secure IoT device connectivity.”

Honing in on network-related IoT challenges, major issues include bandwidth (cited by 30 per cent) and managing the software lifecycle of IoT devices (such as when they require OS updates), which was a concern for 24 per cent.

Speaking of devices, the number of devices that will be connected via IoT is absolutely mindboggling. As Gartner sized it up, IoT device management tools “must be capable of managing and monitoring thousands and perhaps even millions of devices.” Millions!

Network managers have their hands full when it comes to rolling out IoT, but a brand-new Bluetooth networking standard could help tackle some of their prickliest IoT problems.

Mesh is here

In July, the Bluetooth Special Interest Group (SIG) added mesh networking capability to the Bluetooth 5 wireless standard. Rather than one-to-one (pairing single Bluetooth devices to each other) or one-to-many (like one IoT beacon pushing notifications out to several smartphones), mesh enables many-to-many (or m:m) wireless communication.

Normally, Bluetooth devices require information to pass through one central hub like a Wi-Fi router so they can communicate with each other. With mesh networking, all devices within a certain range act as nodes that not only connect to each other but also relay messages to each other.

That means even if one node fails for some reason, the entire communication system can still operate. There are many other benefits mesh can offer the enterprise, however. Here are just a few ways mesh can ease the IoT growing pains described earlier.

Security

The new Bluetooth 5 standard requires all messages to be 128-bit AES-COM encrypted and authenticated. In addition, devices must be provisioned to work on a particular mesh network, which will require an app and encryption keys. Specific encryption keys will also be used to make sure all the devices on one node can’t be opened or locked by any other device on the same network.

Bluetooth 5 has a maximum data rate of 2 Mbps, up from Bluetooth 4.0’s 1 Mbps. This allows IoT sensors to be updated faster and more frequently for security and operational improvements.

Range

Bluetooth 5 has a range of up to 200 metres, twice that of Bluetooth 4.0. This means devices can be connected throughout a building of any size as well as outdoors — an obvious plus for IoT beacon deployment.

Bandwidth

The fact that mesh can connect up to 32,000 devices on one network makes it ideal for IoT in huge, sprawling environments like business campuses, malls, factories and hospitals. It also makes bandwidth strain a very real possibility, right? Fortunately, Bluetooth 5 has some built-in features to combat that.

As explained in greater detail by Android Authority, messages will disappear or expire after a set number of transmissions or publications; this prevents thousands of messages from pinging between mesh nodes in perpetuity and gumming up networks. Some mesh nodes can also be set to hold onto a message and forward it later, saving on power consumption while boosting network efficiency.

Integration/interoperability

Unlike all the agonizing over what 5G means for future hardware, there’s a collective sigh of relief about integrating Bluetooth 5 with existing devices. That’s because most devices that already run Bluetooth Low Energy (LE) will probably require only a simple software update to use the new mesh standard.

That’s great news for IoT deployment in the enterprise; 49 per cent of the organizations surveyed by EMA are using Bluetooth in their IoT networks right now.

None of this is meant to imply that mesh will ‘fix’ or eliminate all hiccups with IoT as it takes hold in the enterprise. That magic bullet doesn’t (and never will) exist. But with a brand-new Bluetooth standard that addresses current pain points, mesh could make an IoT rollout easier and more secure.

Image: iStock

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