Smart Basics #3 – What Are Open and Proprietary Protocols?
Let’s start by defining protocol.
Chances are you’ve heard the term ‘following protocol’ applied to police procedures or medical treatments, meaning that a specific set of rules needs to be followed to achieve best practice. In the case of electronic devices, a protocol is a set of rules that guides an exchange of data. By following these rules, a device can communicate with another device that operates under the same rules, hence the term ‘communication protocol’.
In the tech world, a protocol can govern a program, programming language or application. For a non-tech analogy, let’s use the English language. You could describe grammar, spelling and punctuation – the language rules we are taught – as the protocols of English. These rules don’t tell us what to say, but how to say it in a way that will ensure the most effective communication and comprehension.
Humans naturally question, bend or ignore the rules. Yet if we deviate too far from the ‘standard’ use of language, communication breaks down. Although there is no official authority that regulates the English language, there are ‘language regulators’ who produce prescriptive dictionaries and grammar guides as ‘standards’ such as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). You could describe the OED as a ‘formalised protocol’.
In the same way, technical protocols are agreed on by authorities or parties who then develop ‘technical standards’. An example would be the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) who have been developing and publishing thousands of International Standards applying to electric, electronic and related technologies since their formation in 1906. In terms of data exchange, a sensor manufacturer would apply the relevant IEC technical standard to the hardware they produce, ensuring each sensor made using that same standard can connect and communicate.
You may have heard the terms ‘proprietary’ and ‘open’ applied to technical protocols. If we use examples within the smart buildings industry, the most popular sensors governed by proprietary protocols would be Schneider’s C-Bus and Signify’s (Philips) Dynalite sensors.
In each of these cases, C-Bus sensors can only communicate with other C-Bus sensors and Dynalite sensors with other Dynalite sensors. Schneider and Signify hold proprietary rights to their protocols, which means no other company can use C-Bus and Dynalite protocol in their sensors without permission.
By contrast, if a company manufactures a sensor governed by an open protocol such as KNX – the current global leader – their sensors can communicate with any other KNX device regardless of manufacturer.
It may sound like an open protocol would always be the preferable option, but it isn’t always a client or contractor’s first choice. KNX is the world’s only open protocol endorsed by international standards (KNX Standard – ISO/IEC 14543-3 (Parts 1-6)), and use is growing fast. Yet Signify and Dynalite currently dominate projects in the Australian market. They’re known, established brands with decades of experience.
For manufacturers, KNX is open season. With no restrictions on what technology they produce using the KNX protocol, the competition breeds ingenuity. This means manufacturers who use open protocol systems are continually evolving their products to stay ahead of the market. For manufacturers/suppliers who use proprietary systems, the ROI needs to be significant for changes in a light switch fascia, for example, to be updated.
Whether it’s a smart building new build or a retrofit, there are pros and cons to choosing either open or proprietary protocol hardware. If you’re creating an intelligent environment, the best way forward is to consult a smart building specialist who can recommend which products would best suit your requirements.
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