IoT in Smart Cities: Homogeneous Communication Architecture Imperative for the Heterogeneous Applications Environment

N. Kishor Narang
July 23, 2021


The extensive work done by various global SDOs has comprehensively defined the frameworks & roadmap for future ICT Infrastructures.  However, the disruptive paradigm of the Internet of Things has given rise to new aspects in the way humans, machines, and things are going to communicate with each other soon.

The IoT is all about "heterogeneous" and "aware" devices interacting to simplify people's lives in some way or the other. The Heterogeneity of the IoT paradigm has made it imperative to have a fresh look at the prevalent architectures & frameworks of the ICT Infrastructure being deployed or developed.

The IoT value chain is perhaps the most diverse and complicated value chain of any industry or consortium globally. The gold rush to IoT is so pervasive that, if you combine much of the value chain of most industry trade associations, standards bodies, ecosystem partners of trade associations, and standards bodies, also considering the different technology providers feeding those industries, then you get close to understanding the scope of the task. However, in this heterogeneous scenario, coming up with common harmonized standards is a significant hurdle.

"IoT", a concept that originally sounded like something out of sci-fi movies -- the "Internet of Things" -- is, in fact, a reality and one that is bound to become even more widespread. From being considered one of the most disruptive technologies since the World Wide Web, to being on the verge of becoming one of the most profound technologies by weaving itself into the fabric of everyday life, until it becomes indistinguishable from it[1].

New technologies and paradigms like Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Virtualization, and Cloud Computing promise to disrupt the way we design products, systems, and solutions. Design engineers need to develop new strategies that can help them navigate seamlessly through a much wider and complex canvas of technologies, ecosystems & stakeholders. It is difficult for innovation to happen across disjointed platforms & technologies. Creating the opportunity for ecosystem partners to work across common open platforms facilitates faster innovation.

Being the skeptic I am, I am inclined to opine that the IoT paradigm has not proliferated to its ultimate potential despite so much hype and even genuine potential. Every true IoT application or solution needs cross-domain expertise. Bringing the Internet of Things to life requires a comprehensive systems approach, inclusive of intelligent processing and sensing technology, connectivity, software, and services, along with a leading ecosystem of partners. We need to see acceleration and a maturing of common standards, more cross-sector collaboration, and creative approaches to business models.

As part of its Strategic Plan for 2020-2025, even the IEEE has put major emphasis on "Enhance public understanding of engineering and technology and pursue standards for their practical application". But, in my opinion, we need a new paradigm for standards from technology to delivering innovation.

However, proponents of another school of thought feel that standards are important but not the driving factor in IoT deployments. In their opinion, a 20% CAGR for IoT (as most analysts like IDC project), which is a faster adoption rate than the growth of any economy, means that things are not broken. They also feel that IoT is so broad a concept that one size fits all approaches using monolithic standards are not likely to succeed. As a result, major organizations such as The Industrial Internet Consortium and OneM2M have stepped back and focused on specific verticals for standards development.

The Context

To make cities and our planet earth 'Smart & Sustainable', all the initiatives extensively leverage ICT (Information & Communication Technologies) solutions to manage various aspects of O&M of any infrastructure and services. While, the intervention of ICT tools can help achieve major enhancement in operational efficiency and optimisation in the Energy Consumption & Environment Contamination including but not limiting to GHG Emission; the Carbon Footprint of the ICT Infrastructure itself needs to be kept in check. In the gold rush of getting buildings and cities certified as Green/Sustainable, many SCADA and Automation systems are being added. In any Smart Building or Smart City, every service & Utility is being automated and being re-enforced with ICT backbone to monitor and control its operation in a most optimized manner. While the attending benefits of ICT backbone for any service/utility are quite commendable, there is little focus to optimize the design of the ICT infrastructure itself.

The imperatives of building a sustainable and secure planet have given rise to new paradigms like green movement, DC power, renewables, microgrids, networking devices, network & cyber security, smart homes, smart buildings, smart grids and smart cities. All these shifting and rising paradigms are ultimately converging into the new & much larger paradigm of 'unified and secure' Digital Infrastructure.

But, true convergence is still eluding the evolved citizens of Today's Super industrial Society, because of lack of harmonized standards in the respective ecosystems of Smart Homes, Smart Buildings, Smart Grid and Smart Cities. The smart nodes of one network cannot talk to smart nodes of the other networks. Multitude of 'proprietary systems/solutions', or 'systems/solutions with very limited interoperability' are being deployed in each application areas for today's Home Automation, Building Automation, Industrial Automation or even the Infrastructure Automation needs of the society. This approach will ensure that we shall not be able to derive the maximum benefits of these Technologies, whatsoever.  

Consider the Following

  • Smart cities development & deployments announced without any groundwork on preparedness of the stakeholders and the ecosystem
  • In a smart city, multiple utilities are going to leverage and deploy similar technologies & solutions to improve the operational efficiency
  • The technological trends in "smart Homes", "Smart Buildings", "Smart Grid" "Smart Water" "Smart Transport" and "Smart Cities" are being considered and pursued in isolation from each other by the respective stakeholders, although they form a very tightly interwoven and homogenous confluence of similar technologies applied in different domains, for the common cause of making our planet earth "smart-n-green"
  • There is no common framework and architecture defined for the various physical infrastructures deployed in the proposed smart cities to work in an integrated, harmonized and optimized manner
  • Most of the systems & solutions deployed shall have to be procured based on respective vendors' proprietary technologies with limited or NO interoperability with system/solution components from other vendors. This is because NO standardization or Harmonization groundwork has been undertaken to address the physical Infrastructure's comprehensive and heterogeneous needs in the smart cities
  • Each city shall always be dependent on the respective vendors throughout the lifecycle of such systems/solutions for their Operation & Maintenance, and more so for their upgrading
  • Lack of harmonized standards in the respective "SILOED" ecosystems of the Digital Infrastructure shall ensure that the smart nodes of one network cannot talk to smart nodes of the other networks.
  • Thus, Data sharing amongst the multiple stakeholders of a smart city shall be a major challenge
  • There is a recursive cycle to the data in a Smart City. The information generated is the information consumed, which adds to the information generated, which becomes information used again.

The Rationale for More Interoperability

The unified ICT backbone paradigm influences all sectors in the infrastructure framework. However, a common infrastructure pool enables creating an interconnected and truly homogenous system with seamless communication between Services. Coordination, collaboration and harmonization can be better implemented by using standards based on open, common and shareable, information and communication technologies. The disconnect amongst technological trends being pursued by the stakeholders of the now homogenous smart Infrastructure needs to be bridged without any further delay to maintain the Lifecycle Cost / TCO (total cost of ownership) of these individual components within viable economic thresholds.

We need to redefine our individual perspectives of smart grid, smart building, and smart cities in this context. Now, they must work in close harmony with each other to enable & achieve the homogenous functioning of the smart Infrastructure in any given geographical territory. Furthermore, to optimize the resources and costs, we need to design and deploy a "Unified & Secure" common ICT backbone for all the different components of the smart Infrastructure. This shall need to comprehensively cater to the individual stakeholders' independent applications and use cases like smart grid, smart water, smart health, smart transportation, smart street lighting, and or smart buildings.

Beyond the architectures and frameworks to provide overseeing guidelines to the stakeholders of respective components and layers of the overall smart infrastructure paradigm, it is imperative to work on the finest granularity of each component and layer for standardization, as well as, harmonization, to ensure the interoperability among various similar components addressing different applications. The interoperability has to be achieved comprehensively at semantic as well as syntactic levels. Further the standards being adopted for the smart homes or smart buildings deployments must be harmonized with standards in all other relevant ecosystems and integrated smart infrastructure paradigms.

 There is a need to create and suggest frameworks that help achieve the Interoperability among all the devices & layers at every interface in the networks, be it a smart home network, a smart building network, a smart city/community network or the smart grid network. This approach shall enable the stakeholders to prepare a set of detailed standards based specifications to cater to specific/defined/fixed use cases and development of a Compliance Testing Framework.

Some Initiatives

"OneM2M" is one such initiative that ha attempted to address this problem. However, their efforts are limited to the Common Service Layer only. Their philosophy keeps the Infrastructure at a very abstract level. The user and/or web interfaces are defined relatively in an explicit manner in line with the Web Paradigm under constrained environment. But, on the sensor or field devices side of the network, interfaces are defined on the API (Application Programming Interface) paradigm, which looks quite logical and appropriate on the face of it. Yet, when you try to implement them on diverse sensors or field devices from different vendors even for the same applications/use cases, you start getting the feel of challenges of API based approach of Interoperability. Exposing your Data to the ecosystem stakeholder for consumption through APIs is relatively quite simple, however, consuming Data from plethora of heterogeneous devices through APIs turns out to be an entirely different ballgame. In the API based consumption into a common framework interoperability scenario, you still have to have each API tested against the respective API's Compliance Test Tools (which also need to be first developed and accepted by the respective stakeholders) for each use case and/or application, which in some cases turns out to be more cumbersome than defining an "end to end" unified protocol and Data Semantics.

A Case in Point

Each application ecosystem like smart home, smart building, smart street lighting and smart grid have, over the years, developed their own respective sets of standards and last mile communication protocols. Even some ecosystems like smart grid and smart home have multiple sets of standards and protocols being advocated as the most appropriate for their respective applications. Unfortunately, all these initiatives, protocols and standards go against the tenet of the unified and harmonized paradigm of the Smart Infrastructure.

Consider the following – in a smart city, a Data Concentrator Unit/Gateway is installed at a main square of a city, with RF range of 100 meters radius. Does it make sense to dedicate this DCU/Gateway to only one application like Smart Street Lighting? Should we not leverage this DCU/Gateway to communicate with all kind of sensors or smart "monitoring and/or control" nodes within a radius of 100 meters, irrespective of their applications or use cases? This would enable data collection from all of them in the cloud/server, where the data can then be segregated based on applications or use cases and forwarded to the respective stakeholders/databases. The importance of a sound & vibrant unified ICT backbone in making the concept of any smart city cannot be underscored.

Another Case in Point

At the lower layer of smart nodes themselves, take an example of the electricity energy Meter. Earlier, there used to be a single Stakeholder of the Data from the Energy Meter; and that was - the 'Utility' supplying the Electricity, and that also, only because the Utility needed the data, so that it could raise the bill against each consumer in accordance to the individual energy consumption. Today, the same 'energy meter' has three different stakeholders of its data: first is still the Utility, as it still needs to raise the bill. Second stakeholder is the consumer. Today, each consumer wants to monitor his energy consumption and its pattern to manage his energy bill or devise his energy efficiency strategy. Third stakeholder is the Building Energy Management System, be it a residential or commercial building (unless of course, if the consumer is living in an Independent Villa etc.). The BEMS needs the data from each consumer's energy meter to understand and thus manage and cater to the changing needs of each consumer efficiently, and reliably.

Incidentally, all these three ecosystems have evolved in a Silo mode, and developed and adopted different communication technologies and protocols. For example, the utilities have adopted DLMS or ANSI Tables as its Data Exchange Standard. Home Automation ecosystem uses ZigBee, Zwave, Thread or KNX technologies and protocols, and the building automation or management ecosystem has been using MODBUS as its communication & Data Exchange platform.

So, shall a consumer deploy three different meters to share information with the three stakeholders? Or, a consumer shall put three communication modules on a single meter to share the data individually with each stakeholder? Neither is a truly viable solution. Thus, there is a dire need to harmonize the communication technologies and protocols and data exchange formats to share the energy meter data with multiple stakeholders.

There are numerous such use cases in every application domain of the smart Infrastructure deployments. If the standardization, harmonization and interoperability aspects of the smart information and communication infrastructure are not addressed immediately, then we shall end up having multiple smart devices which can not talk to each other even if they are in the same room, simply because they belong to different Smart Solutions.

In today's scenario, where all the Siloed legacy ecosystems are converging into a homogenous comprehensive Digital Infrastructure Ecosystem, this becomes the most critical imperative for the Global SDOs.

The Imperative

Smart projects are often connected to other aspects of Infrastructure, and should be thought of as large systems of systems, the success of which relies on optimizing all the sub-systems that support it. Unfortunately, some of the earliest deployments of smart Infrastructure have proven to be not so smart. Most deployments have failed to identify dependencies or interactions with adjacent systems, impacting overall performance and restricting functionality.

A systems level approach in design and standardization shall enable newer and better services. Further, it shall allow far greater synergies and cost-effective deployments, reducing the lifecycle (total) cost of ownership of any Infrastructure, be it the grid, a home, a building or even a city, with attendant environmental benefits, including carbon reductions.

There is a need to focus on creating a secure, standardized and open infrastructure model for the delivery of services. The concept combines standards-based, end-to-end software with a converged smart infrastructure gateway/DCU design to establish a common, open framework for secured service delivery and management.

"A 'box' (or service gateway) built on such a platform can consolidate boxes from utilities and/or multiple service providers into a single, unified BOX that can support multiple service providers and utilities. In wake of the proliferation of 'IoT', a new paradigm of "Fog Computing", and now "Edge Computing" beyond the "Cloud Computing" are evolving rapidly. In this paradigm where the storage and intelligence moves from the "cloud" to the "edge" the standardization, harmonization and the interoperability take a pivotal role for operational efficiency of the "Smart Infrastructure".

This approach, if adopted to define the framework and architecture for Smart Infrastructure, shall lead to tremendous savings and optimisation of CAPEX & OPEX of the "Smart, Sustainable & Secure Cities", as well as lead to significant reduction in the 'Carbon Footprint' of the ICT Infrastructure in any earmarked geographical territory.

The major focus of the proposed exercise must be to develop & deploy such a unified, harmonized and yet standards based Comprehensive ICT Infrastructure, including the "end to end last mile communication protocol" defining explicitly and comprehensively layer by layer, frame by frame with complete interoperability, be it at the network, semantic or at syntactic level.

It is hoped that if such a solution could be developed, it could be used as a reference framework for developing standards in the field unified communication for 'Smart City' and 'Smart Infrastructure'.


As is quite evident from the initiatives mentioned above, in recent years, the Industry has realized this major disconnect and the Dichotomy, and thus quite a many Initiatives have been undertaken by different industry groups, as well as, Standard Development Organizations.  The intent of these initiatives is very noble, and very much in line with the sentiments expressed above, yet nothing tangible has yet emerged because of various reasons. Furthermore, all these initiatives, individually address some limited portion of the complete problem emphasized and enumerated above because of the commercial and technological constraints of the stakeholders of such initiatives. With telecommunications technology and telecommunications-related standards being fundamental to home, building and any infrastructure automation technology development and deployment, including the Internet of Things (IoT) and many M2M applications, the success of these depend strongly on standardization, which provides interoperability, compatibility, reliability and effective operations.

There is a clear dichotomy between, on the one hand, the question "Who is going to invest in developing New products, systems and solutions based on the 'UNIFIED, HARMONIZED & SECURE Information & Communication Architecture' for such a heterogeneous scenario with such diverse challenges, when there is absolutely NO Co-ordination or even realization of the problems each stakeholder is going to face very soon?" and on the other hand, the question "Who is going to create the Architecture and/or Framework, if there is no demand or even realization of this NEED?"


[1] Mark Weiser, The computer for the 21st century, Scientific American, September 1991



Kishor NarangN. Kishor Narang is Technology Consultant, Mentor & Design Architect in Electrical, Electronics & ICT with over 40 years of professional experience in education, research, design and consulting. Over 30 years of hardcore Research and Design Development Experience in Solutions, Systems, Products, Hardware, Software & Firmware (Embedded Software) in fields of Industrial, Power, IT, Telecom, Medical, Energy and Environment, and over 10 years of Consultancy Experience to different segments of business & industry.  He has over 250 Research & Design Mentees in the Electronics, ICT & STI Ecosystems. Professionally, he is an Electronics Design Engineer practicing design & development of a wide spectrum of Products, Systems & Solutions as an Independent Design House – NARNIX since 1981. For last 10 years, deeply involved in Standardization in the Electrical, Electronics, Communication and Information Technology Domains with focus on Identifying Gaps in Standards to address Interoperable Systems & Solutions Deployments and bring Harmonization by defining standardized interfaces to ensure End-to-End Interoperability.