Food for thought

To Hub or Not to Hub?

By January 15, 2018 No Comments

This piece is part one of an article originally published on LinkedIn. See the full article here

I started out against hubs. They just seemed like an unnecessary cost and complication as part of home automation setup. But, just as broadband internet needed WiFi routers to help permeate internet access through our households, I now see hubs as a critical component to delivering IoT’s potential in the home. Why are hubs critical to taking full advantage of a smart home? Let me start by explaining what a hub is.

What is a hub?

A hub is a device that facilitates communication between individual devices by serving as a common connection point for devices in a network. Hubs we use in our everyday lives are WiFi routers, cell phones, and cellular communication towers. Just think of how many wearables, headphones, and accessories communicate back and forth between our mobile devices!

Great. There are already hubs around us. So why do we need to use yet another hub for home automation? The short answer is: as home automation continues to be a bigger part of our everyday lives, we want those devices to use a communication method that fits the unique needs of the devices and technology running home automation systems.

Why Do We Need Another Hub in Our Lives?

WiFi routers are the first idea many turn to as an option for a home automation hubs, because they’re already in the vast majority of homes, carrying upfront cost savings as a result. However, WiFi routers carry significant direct and indirect costs for home automation systems. From a direct cost standpoint, once you start adding more than a couple of WiFi-
based devices to a system, many routers have performance issues. The cost of buying a new router that can
handle all of your home automation devices, plus the connected TVs, video game systems, tablets, computers, cell phones, and other connected devices that are now a part of our everyday lives, typically far outweigh the cost of a dedicated home automation hub.

From an indirect standpoint, WiFi is designed for delivering large amounts of data rather quickly, but it’s not always the most reliable or secure communication method. To further my point, Cisco estimates that 43-percent of U.S. households have experienced an internet outage at least once a month, and all it takes is a quick Google search to see the dangers of whatever is the most recent WiFi hack. This is fine for data streams where the occasional data packet drop is inconsequential (pixelating Netflix, for example, doesn’t bug us much), but when home access or occupancy-based HVAC control is reliant on the chosen communication method, you don’t want to have a communication breakdown.

There are a few hubs that use protocols designed for other applications, like Bluetooth, or proprietary frequencies, like Insteon or Lutron. These options have some benefits, but there are always concerns about the cost, long-term viability, and interoperability of proprietary technologies. Security can also be a concern when using technologies for purposes outside of their original design intent (for example, recently revealed Bluetooth vulnerabilities).

Home automation-specific hubs, such as PointCentral’s, are designed to use modern home automation-specific communication protocols, like Zwave or ZigBee. These communication technologies allow hubs to balance security (Zwave
uses the same 256-bit encryption as major banks) with performance (home automation protocols utilize mesh technology to bounce messages off the nearest device and daisy chain communication back to a hub versus having to have enough power to communicate directly back to the hub through dead spots and interference).