What is Thread? Jonathan Hui, Principal Software Engineer at Google and VP of Technology at Thread Group, joins Ryan Chacon on the IoT For All Podcast to discuss the Thread network protocol. They cover how Thread works, the differences between Thread and Wi-Fi, how Thread is improving the smart home, how Thread works with Matter, when not to use Thread, and the IoT challenges that Thread is solving.
Episode 284’s Sponsor: Avnet Silica
The We Talk IoT Business Podcast is back! Explore best practices, IoT use cases, and formulas for success on your preferred streaming provider. Or visit avnet-silica.com/podcast.
Jonathan Hui is a principal software engineer at Google, where he is responsible for Thread implementation in products and is maintainer of OpenThread released by Google. Prior to Google, he was a principal engineer at Cisco, where he built some of the world’s largest IPv6 mesh networks for urban-scale, enterprise, and utility applications. He delivered the world’s first commercial 6LoWPAN networks at Arch Rock before its acquisition by Cisco.
Jonathan has also been deeply involved in standards bodies (IETF, IEEE, Thread, and Wi-SUN) and co-authored foundational specifications related to IPv6 in low-power wireless networks. He is also a co-inventor on more than 175 USPTO issued patents. Jonathan has a BS in electrical and computer engineering from Carnegie Mellon University and an MS and a PhD in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley.
Interested in connecting with Jonathan? Reach out on LinkedIn!
About Thread Group
Formed in 2013, the non-profit Thread Group is focused on making Thread the foundation for the Internet of Things in homes and commercial buildings. Built on open standards, Thread is a low power wireless networking protocol that enables direct, end-to-end, secure, and scalable connectivity between IoT devices, mobile devices, and the internet. Because Thread is IP-based, it seamlessly integrates with many environments, apps, devices, and clouds. The Thread Group provides a rigorous certification program to ensure device interoperability and a positive user experience. Thread is backed by industry-leading companies including Amazon, Apple, Google Nest, Lutron, Nordic Semiconductors, NXP Semiconductors, OSRAM, Qualcomm, Siemens, Silicon Labs, Samsung SmartThings, Somfy, and Yale Security.
Key Questions and Topics from this Episode:
(02:08) What is Thread?
(03:41) Thread versus Wi-Fi
(08:07) How Thread works with Matter
(10:49) When not to use Thread
(13:28) IoT challenges Thread is solving
(17:00) Learn more and follow up
– [Ryan] Hello everyone and welcome to another episode of the IoT For All Podcast. I’m Ryan Chacon, and on today’s episode we’re going to talk about Thread. What is Thread, how it works, the role it plays in the industry, all the good stuff you need to know. With me today is Jonathan Hui, the Principal Software Engineer at Google and the Vice President of Technology at Thread Group.
Thread Group is focused on making Thread the foundation for Internet of Things in homes and commercial buildings. So he’s the perfect person to be talking about Thread. Really good episode. I think you’ll get a lot of value out of it. We’d really appreciate it if you would give this video a thumbs up, subscribe to our channel if you have not done so already, and hit that bell icon, so you get the latest episodes as soon as they are out. But other than that, quick word from our sponsor and then we’ll get into the episode.
The We Talk IoT Business Podcast is Back. Explore best practices, IoT use cases, and formulas for success on your preferred streaming provider. Or visit avnet-silica.com/podcast.
That’s the We Talk IoT Internet of Things Business Podcast. If you wanted to check it out on the website, it’s www dot avnet a v n e t dash silica s i l i c a dot com/podcast. Welcome Jonathan to the IoT For All Podcast. Thanks for being here this week.
– [Jonathan] Yeah, my pleasure.
– [Ryan] So let’s kick this off by having you give a quick introduction about yourself, background experience, and overview of what you do, who you work with, that kind of thing.
– [Jonathan] Yeah, of course. So yeah, I’m Jonathan Hui. Currently a Principal Software Engineer at Google leading low power wireless technologies. Specific focus on Thread. That’s why we’re here talking today. I have a long history in 802.15.4. Currently serving as VP of Technology for the Thread Group leading the standardization of Thread and the technical activities within the Thread Group.
And before Thread, I was working in smart cities applications, working on a standard called Wi-SUN which is a neighborhood area network protocol for long-range, high-density applications. So yeah, almost two decades of long-range mesh networks.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. So, a lot of us have heard of Thread, a lot of us have not, or may not be as familiar with what it is. Tell us what Thread is and then also what the role, what role the Thread Group plays since obviously you’re, you work for Google but involved with Thread Group, so how does that work?
– [Jonathan] Yeah, so in short, Thread is a low-power, IP-based mesh networking protocol. It was originally conceived for the smart home, but has expanded to support other domains like commercial building applications. Thread, we like to call it as a low power alternative to Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi also is an IP-based network protocol, but it’s really optimized for different applications, right?
Wi-Fi for higher throughput, higher bandwidth applications. Whereas Thread is really for low-power devices that can operate for years on modest batteries. And so as we see in the different link technologies, we see them as different, providing kind of different solutions for different domains.
And IP brings all of those technologies together and that’s where that unifying layer allows application layers, like Matter, for example, that are based on IP, can now leverage different technologies simultaneously, so that we can support different devices all on the same network with the same security domain, all of that. Yep.
– [Ryan] So can you talk a little bit more about when you compare it to Wi-Fi, the main differences between Wi-Fi since most people associate when they think about smart home products, connecting it to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth and then dive a little deeper into kind of what it’s really optimized for.
Take us through some examples of where Thread is used versus Wi-Fi or other technologies.
– [Jonathan] Yeah. So Thread really is designed for devices that don’t have much data to communicate and really needs to operate for a long time with low-power. So clearly battery powered devices are in the wheelhouse for Thread. So, temperature sensors are, occupancy sensors, but also door locks, right?
Things that are hard to wire, but you, or you want to place in various areas that a wire may not extend to. Those applications really, if you think about it, it’s just really, in many cases a single bit of information that needs to be communicated, and sometimes with very low latency, right?
An occupancy sensor is a classic example. You want that device to just send a message very quickly and then go back to sleep because you don’t want it to waste any more power than it does. And then on the con-, the reverse direction also, like door locks, while they don’t send information directly, but they also need to receive information like open the door lock and you want that to happen relatively quickly as well.
So Thread was really designed to be very low overhead from a protocol perspective and allowing devices to just basically wake up, communicate a packet, and then go back to sleep in as much lower power as possible. Wi-Fi on the other hand is a, designed for high throughput applications, right?
So, we always talk about new Wi-Fi versions and how much more data rate they can push. And they do that by things like extending the bandwidth, doing more coding on top, uh, things that ultimately make the protocol more complex, but that’s necessary to achieve more information flow within a given amount of time.
So, again like it’s different trade-offs. Different approaches, but serving different needs. Right?
– [Ryan] So talk to me a little bit about the role Thread is now playing in improving the smart home space, the home network and so forth. What are the real capabilities and features that are driving this forward and making it or growing its adoption.
– [Jonathan] Yeah. So, I’ve already talked about it’s being low-power, right? So, Wi-Fi devices, we see them, we see battery-powered Wi-Fi devices as well. But they typically last a couple, three months on batteries, right? Whereas Thread devices can last for years, which is great, right?
Nobody wants to be running around changing batteries all the time. The other aspect about Thread, it really is designed to be a mesh network. So mesh is great because it can extend the reach of devices. We’re seeing this with Wi-Fi mesh obviously is becoming very popular. I think one big difference with Thread is that it’s, the mesh is really designed to be vendor agnostic, right?
You could get devices from different vendors and they just seamlessly work together to extend the reach and range of Thread. And that’s really important because there’s sensors like water leak sensors that you put in the basement, which are hard to reach or you may have outdoor sensors that need further reach as well.
So, that mesh network really is important from a reach and range perspective, but also from a robustness, right? With mesh, you can have devices dynamically routed around failures, right? These are devices that are often low cost, again, low power, and devices can fail, or if power goes out in your home, some devices may just ultimately lose power unexpectedly. And the Thread mesh network allows that robustness and communication to continue happening. Whereas oftentimes with Wi-Fi, you don’t have that level of robustness because it’s practically a star network from the devices’ perspective. Um. Yeah.
– [Ryan] You know, you mentioned this earlier, you mentioned Matter, which I think’s a good thing to bring in now. How does Thread work with Matter or any other standards or the technologies that it commonly integrated with or playing together with?
– [Jonathan] Yeah, so the great thing with Matter and Thread and Wi-Fi, they all agree on basically the unifying abstraction, which is the internet protocol, right? The internet protocol obviously has been very successful, right? The internet reaching worldwide billions of users. And so what made the internet protocol so successful, again, was really to allow end-to-end applications, end-to-end security across any kind of link, right?
It could be Wi-Fi, it could be Ethernet, could be cellular, cable modem, whatever, right? And that flexibility really allowed innovation to happen while not having to deal with the entire stack, right? So the way Thread and Matter and Wi-Fi play together is that, the entire network just looks like a single IP network. From a Matter perspective, all it’s doing is sending an IP packet to an IP destination. In some sense, it doesn’t really know whether it’s talking to a Wi-Fi device or a Thread device, it just does what it does. And that’s the great thing with IP. And then with, that also applies to say service discovery which is used to discover devices on the network, right?
Like, the common example is I add a printer to my network, what you do is, you open up, you add the printer driver, but it just discovers that there’s a printer on your network and you say, yeah, add that printer. Thread uses that exact same technology that’s underlying, and so does Matter, right?
So, from that perspective, all the networking capabilities that exist in your phones and laptops and whatnot today, Thread just exposes those low power devices like any other device that might be on your Wi-Fi network. And so it really does leverage the existing technologies that make it really scalable, really robust and allows Matter to just use them as if they’re any other device.
– [Ryan] Yeah, totally makes a lot of sense. And you mentioned earlier, and obviously with any type of technology like this in IoT, there’s always applications that it’s right for, and then drawbacks and things that are maybe not as much of a fit for. You mentioned the throughput side of things.
But what other drawbacks are there? Or maybe if you could maybe want to walk through applications where Thread is not necessarily the right choice for a solution or device or what have you.
– [Jonathan] Yeah. So yeah, throughput obviously is a big one. If you’re trying to stream video and high quality audio, Thread is probably not the right solution. You really do want that additional bandwidth that Wi-Fi provides. I mentioned earlier in the show about Wi-SUN, so Wi-SUN is a wide area, designed to connect devices across an entire city, right?
And so, the main difference there is the range, right? The devices need to be able to talk several kilometers ideally and because they can talk at that range, they also need to support a much higher density, right? You could have tens of thousands of these devices on a city block, or you could have, in a very rural environment, it could be just a couple houses in that hundred kilometer area. So Thread, on the other hand, really is designed for in-building, in-home applications. So, it’s targeting smart home, like I said, especially with Matter. So typically we’re talking about devices that net- or network sizes in the, in advanced home maybe in the hundreds, but tens of thousands is clearly not what we’re talking about.
And then commercial buildings, you may get up into thousands of nodes, right? But again, not the scale that you would see in an entire city. So, Thread has a different trade-off, again, it’s 250 kilobits, so it’s not the slowest network tech. There’s other network technologies like LoRa and others that go into the single digit kilobits per second.
Thread is in the 250 kilobit per second, but not in the megabits or gigabits range of Wi-Fi. So yeah, so with all these technologies, there’s always a trade-off in power, throughput, range, that’s the classic set of trifecta that people optimize differently for and, Thread took the particular stance that it thinks is best suited for commercial and home applications.
– [Ryan] One of the last questions I wanted to ask you before I let you go here is around challenges that you see in the space. It doesn’t necessarily have to be directly related to Thread, but maybe you can tie that in as to problems or challenges it is solving. But from your angle and perspective, working in capacity at Google and with Thread Group, what challenges are you seeing in the IoT space that are really worth noting or and maybe again relating back to how Thread is coming in to help solve that.
– [Jonathan] Yeah, I see, there’s a lot of challenges in the space, but a couple of the high level ones. One is really interoperability, right? For such a long time, the IoT space has been defined by very pointed optimizations for the specific domain, right? And that naturally led to every ecosystem developing their own technology that’s not interoperable because they had a different viewpoint on how best to serve that specific market.
And as we’re realizing now as an industry that siloed marketplace just wasn’t the right way to get people engaged, consumers engaged, get the market to grow, right? You hit these limits where users don’t want to be locked into an existent, a single ecosystem. They want choice.
They want flexibility. They want what the internet provided, right? Like I can use any ISP with any smartphone, with any laptop and printer, right? I don’t have to be locked into a very specific ecosystem. So, interoperability is a huge one. And that’s where at Google, we strongly stand behind the internet protocol, Thread, Wi-Fi, Matter, right?
As those, as the leading technologies, to support that. The other big one obviously is just reliability and robustness, right? Especially in the space. The solutions, they’re effectively, in many cases, replacing existing technology, right? That existing technology being, wire-, physically wired devices, right?
Light switches, light bulbs, and users are just, it’s a very reliable system. Users just expect it to work. You flip the switch, within a tens of milliseconds, the light bulb turns on, right? And it happens every time. And so, for better or worse, consumers have come up with that expectation.
And when they install their IoT devices or smart home devices, they expect that same level of reliability. I mean, in fairness, there is a trade-off, right? Like they’re using these devices because they either don’t require new wiring, they don’t require retrofitting, or they really do allow new applications because I can put devices or new devices that I couldn’t do before. But again, we have to come up and address these expectations about reliability and robustness.
– [Ryan] Absolutely. Yeah, it’s, Thread’s been an interesting kind of area to follow. And then when you’re talking about just the general interoperability, the reliability, simplicity of things, it’s simply something that we can, regardless of what area of IoT you’re in, can definitely relate to it for sure. But this has been a very cool conversation.
We haven’t actually had, I don’t think we’ve ever in almost 260 some episodes talked about Thread, so I’m glad you were able to take the time. I think our audience is going to get a lot of value out of it, so thank you for jumping in here. For our audience who wants to learn more and follow up with any other questions, learn more about the Thread Group, Thread in general, what’s the best way they can do that?
– [Jonathan] Yeah. We have a website, threadgroup.org where anyone can learn more. If you’re wanting to play more with Thread, there’s also the open source implementation of Thread for those developers at openthread.io, yeah.
– [Ryan] Fantastic. Well, thanks Jonathan so much for doing this. Really appreciate it. I’m excited to get this out and start educating our audience a bit more on Thread. I think it’s a very interesting space, exciting applications that it’s involved in as was when Matter came out, we were talking about Matter, got a lot of popularity, so this will be a good one to follow up with so really appreciate your time.
– [Jonathan] Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, this is certainly an exciting time.