Andy Stanford-Clark lives on the Isle of Wight, just off the southern coast of the United Kingdom. He commutes several times per week via ferry to his job as an engineer at IBM’s Hursley software lab. Frustrated that he would sometimes arrive at the island’s ferry terminal in the morning only to find that weather conditions had slowed or halted ferry traffic, Stanford-Clark invented a method for alerting ferry riders when the transport system had shut down or there were delays. It involves tracking the location of ferries via GPS sensors and sending out alerts via a Twitter account. At the heart of the system is a messaging protocol called Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, or MQTT for short.
MQTT is not easily digested by non-techies, but know this: it has the potential of doing for the Internet of Things what the Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) did for the Internet that connects people. It makes it possible, potentially, for every device on the network to communicate and share information with every other device.
Today marks a new departure for the protocol. Its creators, IBM and Italy’s Eurotech, are contributing the software to the Eclipse Foundation where it will be available to anyone who wants to use it under an open-source software license. The goal is to turn MQTT into a pervasive, cross-industry standard that will accelerate the transmission of information not just between machines but from businesses to businesses and from businesses to consumers–as in the Isle of Wight ferry application. “The goal is to get people to come together around this protocol and use it to connect all sorts of device and systems–so we can share information more easily,” says Andy Piper, a software researcher at the Hursley lab who is involved in the strategy for messaging technologies.
The protocol was created in 1999 by Stanford-Clark and colleagues at IBM and Eurotech, a leading supplier of embedded technologies. Since then, it has been used by companies and whole industries to improve communications between machines–for instance, messaging between sensors on a remote pipeline and server computers that monitor the status of the pipes and the flow of material through them.
But now it’s clear that MQTT could do so much more. It could be a key enabler of the effort to make the human-made systems of the world work better by deploying trillions of sensing devices, connecting them via networks and using analytics to mine insights from the data so people can make better decisions.”We can’t make the most intelligent decisions unless we can connect to the instrumented world. That’s where MQTT fits in. It’s the the connection between the sensor chips and the network,” says Piper.
Innovative companies are already finding important uses for the protocol. Facebook, for instance, uses it as the basis for its new Facebook Messenger application, making it possible for people to reliably send instant messages and conduct online chats with one friend or several. The protocol is especially useful when people are communicating via smart phones–where connectivity can be an issue. “We were able to achieve phone-to-phone delivery in the hundreds of milliseconds, rather than multiple seconds,” Lucy Zhang, one of the Facebook Messenger architects, wrote in an Aug. 12 blog post.
The connection with the Eclipse Foundation augurs well for the future of MQTT. Eclipse oversees a set of open source projects, software tools and frameworks that are used by millions of developers to help build applications. In addition, IBM and Eurotech hope to greatly expand the use of MQTT by getting it adopted as an international standard by a technology standards body.
In the meantime, it’s possible to configure sensor-based systems so they can take advantage of MQTT even though it’s not installed in the sensors themselves. Piper did just that with a pet project of his own–a weather station that he has installed in his backyard. The data from the sensors is transmitted to a server in his home via an RF connection. From there he shares it with with friends at work, the world via Twitter, and the open “Weather Underground” community, using MQTT as the protocol. Sometimes making a smarter planet starts in your own back yard.