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Optimizing The Smart Home For The IoT

Raoul Wijgergangs, Vice President of Z-Wave Business Unit
Sigma Designs

As the IoT grows around us, producing unimaginable amounts of data from our workplaces, public spaces, and even our body wear, it is important to remember that the home is, and always will be, the central conduit between people and the IoT world. Most of our lives are spent in our homes, and with many global populations trending senior and aging in place, this reality will only intensify for foreseeable future.

We are still in the early stages of smart home penetration in global markets, and until recently, the primary goal of the smart home industries had been to spur consumer interest. Product development followed the classical pattern of new technology introductions, stressing features and benefits. This was an appropriate approach, since smart security, energy management, activity monitoring and remote home management were (and still largely are) new concepts for mainstream consumers. As interest and adoption began to climb, a flood of products and services entered the market in a variety of segments, ranging from add-on services by telcos and security providers, to DIY solutions promising “instant” smart home capabilities.

smarthomeMost of these products are succeeding in the market, but others, especially from newcomers in retail, have failed to deliver on their promise. As a result, resellers such as Home Depot and Staples temporarily retrenched their smart home initiatives. This initial market setback was the logical consequence of the introduction process: a primary focus on features and benefits, with little thought to less attention-grabbing qualities, such as installation, reliability, practicality, security, and interoperability. Now that there are many smart products and services that offer similar features and benefits, and because consumers are increasingly conversant with smart home concepts, the market and its offerings must now evolve. Second-wave smart homes, especially in the context of the IoT, must be focused on optimization.

Smart Homes Until Now – What Have We Learned?
The first wave of wireless smart home products taught both consumers and installers a few early-market lessons. The first was that many smart home products were not secure. A major distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyber attack in the US this past October was aided through malware infections that had been injected into smart home products. A primary culprit was lax manufacturing from a popular OEM camera maker that left an open door to malicious activity. However, an equal portion of the blame could fairly be aimed at the “market introduction” mindset of the IoT industry itself. The earliest IoT specifications set contradictory security goals in an attempt to make setup easy for the user. There are strong parallels to be drawn between the early days of WiFi where most routers did not provide security either or passwords were always left as default.

Decisions were undertaken by some manufacturers and trade associations to make security measures “transparent” to the user during initial (and subsequent) setup. By shielding the user from hands-on ownership of passwords and other security options, the manufacturers actually made the products much less secure, and more vulnerable to cyber attack.

Another early market lesson learned in smart home v1.0 had to do with energy management, particularly in the case of battery operated smart devices. Many of the key products in a smart home setup depend on batteries, including door and window sensors, smart locks, smart water valves and the like. Many of these products are hard-installed in the home, often by professional service providers. When the battery inevitably drained, the consumer was at a loss to provide maintenance; a service call and truck roll was often needed, and the business models for the providers began to make less sense. Much of this problem had to do with poor choice of protocols or poor implementation of device status polling. The more frequently a battery-operated device is checked by the smart home system for status (Is the door locked? Is the window closed?), the more frequently the battery is drained. In the list of design goals, battery life took a back seat to more obviously salable features.

Finally, there was the issue of interoperability and future-proofing the smart home system. Consumers have long been accustomed to owning different brands of consumer electronics products to achieve a unified benefit. For example, many home theaters feature separate brands for video display, audio playback and source components. However, despite inconsistencies of terminology and feature sets between different brands, these disparate components always worked together for the common goal; in this case, a home theater experience.

That interoperability was, unfortunately, absent in much of the smart home market. Consumers might buy a door lock, a camera, a window sensor and smart lighting switches, only to find that these components would simply not work with each other. Numerous enabling protocols were used in the first wave of the smart home gold rush, some of them tweaked to become brand-proprietary. The frustration experienced by consumers was obvious in both product returns and negative press. The frustration felt by the service providers that had hoped to capitalize on the smart home IoT market was equally acute, and led to a diminishment of services offered. The end effect of this technological confusion kept smart home adoption artificially low.

Now That We Know, Let’s Optimize
While features and benefits are still important to consumers, the second wave of IoT smart home products must focus on solving the shortcomings of first-wave products. This sets the stage for the optimized smart home. Priority one would be to make devices secure, and to the greatest extent possible, make the smart home hacker-proof.

For example, an end-to-end system of encrypted communications, particularly during the initial inclusion of new devices into a smart home network, should be a mandatory defense against a key IoT vulnerability. A system where pairing a new device requires a PIN or QR code eliminates an open door for unwanted access, whether from an innocent neighbor’s smart home system, or a remote hacker’s “sniffing” software that sits in wait for such a moment. The Z-Wave protocol’s latest S2 Security Framework uses this authentication technique, which pre-empts two common hacking strategies used against smart objects. Both “man-in-the-middle” attacks, where the attacker secretly relays or alters communication between two devices; and “brute force” attacks, which use trial and error to crack user passwords, are blocked by S2. In order to invite scrutiny and challenges to its capabilities, the S2 Security Framework specification has been placed intothe public domain.

Because most security breaches originate from outside the home via the Internet, the gateway that connects the smart home to the broadband provider should be secured as well. In practice, this is often not the case; many consumers never even set proper passwords for their gateway. To stop outside intrusions, all requests and commands coming into the smart home via the Internet, and all status and reportage coming out of it, should be encrypted. To address this challenge, all household IoT communications traffic, should be sent through a secure TLS 1.1 tunnel. In this method, all correspondence between the smart home and the Internet stays encrypted.

Priority number two would be energy management. It is clear that longest possible battery life should be a primary design goal for smart devices that are powered this way. Most battery-powered sensor types achieve long battery life because theyre in sleep mode until theyre triggered. But some battery powered devices such as door locks, thermostats, and control panels — can’t stay in sleep mode for long periods of time, because they must always be listening to receive signals. Merely waking the device up every few seconds, as most technologies do, drains the battery life.

A FLiRS (Frequently Listening Routing Slave) system can offer multi-year operation for battery-powered devices, with no compromises in security or functionality. FLiRS provides a mechanism to wake up the device within one second, with negligible battery drain that’s very close to that of full sleep mode. If a controller needs to communicate with a battery-powered device such as a door lock, the controller sends a special beam signal, which wakes up the FLiRS device. The FLiRS device continually alternates between sleep mode and a partially awake mode, where it listens for the beam signal. When the FLiRS device senses the beam, it immediately wakes up and communicates. If the device doesn’t hear a beam, it goes back to full sleep until it partially awakes again and listens for a beam. This “partially awake” mode, combined with the special beam, provides battery life nearly equivalent to fully sleeping devices, while reducing latency to about a second.

Finally, second-wave products for the IoT smart home must be able to work together, and the user must be able to control them with a single application interface, whether from a smartphone or a remote PC. Most of the smart home protocols on the market come in different “flavors” for different applications; some are even brand-proprietary which has resulted in a fragmented, landscape of incompatible smart home products. Technologies, like Z-Wave, where interoperability is defined at the product level, ensures compatibility between brands and between generations of devices. This brand-agnostic and backward-compatible approach is meaningful to service providers that expect to retain smart home customers over time.

As the IoT continues its explosive growth, the role of the home will become increasingly critical. It is time to ensure the security, efficiency and compatibility of the devices that will fuel this growth and meet the challenges of the IoT market; both today’s and tomorrow’s.

Slide 1Raoul Wijgergangs is Vice President Z-Wave Business Unit for Sigma Designs.A veteran in the Smart Home IoT industry Mr. Wijgergangs joined Zensys, the founding company of Z-Wave, in 2004, pioneering the US IoT smart-home market, building not only a new company,but an industry at the same time. Prior to Zensys Mr. Wijgergangs worked at Philips for ten years and held key positions, including Senior Director of Global Sales and Marketing for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, and helped founding Arcadyan, a Philips joint venture with Accton.

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