Andy Stanford-Clark, an IBM Master Inventor who lives in the United Kingdom, jokes that his goal was “world domination” in 1999 when he and Arlen Nipper of Eurotech invented a protocol aimed at greatly improving machine-to-machine communications. This was at the time when another British technology pioneer, Kevin Ashton, coined the term “Internet of Things” to describe how the Internet could be connected to the physical world via a vast network of sensors. Stanford-Clark believed that his protocol, now called MQ Telemetry Transport, or MQTT for short, would enable organizations to quickly and affordably gather, integrate and make use of all of that sensor data. It would be an essential underlying technology for the Internet of Things.
Fast forward to today. OASIS, one of the leading technology standards bodies governing the evolution of the Internet, has just announced that it will accept MQTT as an industry standard protocol. This move paves the way for the technology to be used widely for applications ranging from power distribution and public safety to retailing, smart phones and auto communication systems. MQTT now has the potential to have the same kind of impact on the world as HTTP, which is a key part of every Internet address for computers and Web sites. Proponents of the Internet of Things believe there could be up to 50 billion sensors hooked up by the year 2020–turning the promise of Big Data into a reality. “The vision of billions and trillions of connected devices can now come true,” says Stanford-Clark. “The implications are huge. We can help solve the energy crisis and improve agriculture, transportation and healthcare. It will make getting things done easier, cheaper and more efficient.”
For IBM, the OASIS development is significant because MQTT is an essential ingredient in the company’s Smarter Planet vision. IBM believes that with the combination of instrumentation (sensors), interconnectivity (networks) and intelligence (analytics), it’s possible for people to understand how the world works much better and to make better decisions–which will improve people’s lives, the performance of governments and businesses and the sustainability of human life on Earth. MQTT is a key enabler of interconnectivity. It makes it possible, potentially, for every device on the network to communicate and share information with every other device.
Until now, companies that provide the technology for sensor networks have either used HTTP, which is quuite inefficient, or they use proprietary technology, which makes it difficult for data from different sources of data to be integrated with one another. MQTT makes it possible to move data around super-efficiently, which is essential when you have millions or billions of sensors hooked up to the network. It also side-steps the Tower of Babel problem caused by the use of proprietary technologies.
For Stanford-Clark, the OASIS announcement is a big step in a long journey. He and Nipper invented MQTT to help oil and gas distribution companies monitor their pipelines effectively and efficiently. But, quickly, they saw that it could do much more. Stanford-Clark led an internal effort to get the protocol included in a range of IBM products. His mission was helped greatly when the company adopted the Smarter Planet strategy in 2008. But it wasn’t until 2009 that MQTT started to be seen by people outside IBM as a transformational technology. After Stanford-Clark spoke about it at an open source software conference in the UK, Roger Light, a researcher at Nottingham University who attended the conference, went home and wrote a piece of open source software, called Mosquitto, that made it easier for organizations and individuals to use MQTT on a wide variety of applications. Two years later, the Eclipse Foundation, an open source software organization, adopted MQTT as a core element in its framework for machine-to-machine applications. Now comes the OASIS endorsement.
Innovative companies are already finding important uses for the protocol. Facebook, for instance, uses it as the basis for its 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.
Stanford-Clark has found many personal uses for his MQTT baby as well. Shortly after inventing the protocol, he began using it in his home automation projects. He lives in a rambling stone house built in 1561 on Britain’s Isle of Wight, and he uses homebrewed technology to manage his family’s energy use–everything from turning lights off and on to having his bathroom heater come on automatically at just the right time. His latest project using MQTT is automating the radiator valves so he doesn’t overheat some rooms and underheat others. He uses heat sensors in the rooms to send feedback to a control system, which opens and closes radiator values just the right amount for each room.
He also uses MQTT in a system he invented for managing his journey to work at IBM’s Hursley software lab, on the mainland. Each trip involves a car, a ferry, a bus and a train. He tracks the schedules and on-time performance of the public transport links in his journey and adjusts his departure accordingly.
Looking back, Stanford-Clark is immensely proud at how far MQTT has come, and excited at its potential. “It seemed like a crazy goal at the time, but now it’s snowballing,” he says. “I feel now that I’ve made a real difference in the world.”