An Introduction to Thread

By Pär Håkansson May 23, 2018


Thread brings IPv6-based mesh networking to the Internet of Things. Let's take a closer look at this emerging protocol.

One of the big criticisms of the drive towards the smart home has been the hurdle of interoperability. The goal of Thread is to standardize the way smart home and building automation devices communicate with each other to create a seamlessly connected system.

The protocol is already backed by the likes of Nest, Osram, Schneider, Somfy, Yale, other IC manufacturers and now ourselves.

Nordic Semiconductor has joined the Thread Group as a sponsor member, and I will be Nordic’s representative on the Board of Directors. Let’s take a look at why we’re throwing our weight behind the protocol.

> Read more: Mesh networks in the smart home

What is Thread?

Thread is a standards-based IPv6-based mesh networking protocol developed for simply and securely connecting products around the home to each other, to the internet and to the cloud. Thread networks are simple to install, highly secure, scalable to hundreds of devices and developed to run on low-power, low-cost IEEE 802.15.4 devices.

Built on open standards and with IPv6/6LoWPAN protocols, Thread’s approach to wireless networking offers a secure and reliable mesh network with no single point of failure, simple connectivity and low power. Because it utilizes a mesh network, there is no need to rely on a central access point as with Wi-Fi.

Thread can already be found in many of Nest's products, and the protocol can be added to many of today’s existing 802.15.4 wireless device already on the market with a simple over-the-air software update.

> Read more: Flash memory and over-the-air firmware updates

A focus on interoperability

Thread has a rigorous certification program that will rely on third party testing to ensure interoperability. The Thread Group certification team is actively collaborating with many member companies across a wide range of applications.

To give a further boost market adoption, Thread released a second formal recognition program called “Thread Ready”, for devices that don’t require or use the full scope of the Thread certified program.

Why choose Thread?

Thread has many good features as a network protocol for IoT. It is a scalable, robust and secure mesh network. However, from my perspective, the major benefit of Thread is its use of IPv6 and open standards. This ease being part of heterogenous IP networks, i.e., WiFi, ethernet etc.

With many other non-IP protocols a gateway is required to connect to the cloud, and you have to convert between your traffic and internet traffic. With Thread you are using a border router. If you are a cloud developer, you don’t have to worry about whether it’s Thread or whatever, the devices simply have an IP address.

An important clarification is that Thread is similar to Wi-Fi in terms of specifying only the networking layer. You need to have an application layer on top, just like how HTTP or FTP runs on top of IP.

Thread itself does not specify this application layer, there are other organisations doing that. Thread is in dialogue with organizations defining application layers such as Zigbee or OCF, so you can run Dotdot over Thread, for example.

The fundamental idea is that you can have multiple application layers in the network, as with Wi-Fi. The ambition from the beginning has been that every home should have Thread.

The time is now

While some are viewing Thread as a protocol for the future, there is no reason not to get started now. ICs and certified software stacks exist today, there are routers being manufactured, and products out there on the market.

The simple point is this: If you want your product to be part of a bigger IP-based network, then this is the right solution for you.

The future of Thread

While primarily known as a protocol for the smart home, the next step for Thread is to look at more commercial applications. Thread could be the answer for the specific challenges of connecting commercial spaces.

The Thread Group has a liaison with the KNX Association, home to a worldwide standard in home and building control, in applications including lighting, energy management, HVAC systems and metering.

Read more: Thread In Commercial Network Topology Explained

We believe that the Thread protocol will be important for Nordic and our customers now and in the future. As an open standard, it relies on everyone to contribute and benefit. We have joined the Thread Group because we want to be able to influence the technology and grow that common market for everyone.


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By: Pär Håkansson

Pär Håkansson holds an M.Sc. EE and a Technical Licentiate degree in communication electronics from Linköping University. Pär has extensive engineering experience starting as a RF Application Engineer. He spent the last decade in the low power wireless industry, holding positions in both research and business/marketing. Pär Håkansson joined Nordic Semiconductor in 2015 as a product marketing manager. Pär currently lives in Oslo, Norway with his wife and kids, and in his spare time he enjoys fishing and training.



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