When push comes to shove

MQTT shines in push-based communication

DianaKupferJAXEditorialTeam
push.1

We quiz the founders of IoT and M2M solution specialists dc-square GmbH on all things MQTT.

MQTT – a lightweight M2M messaging protocol – is
something we’re going to be hearing a lot more about inthe months
to come as IoT hype reaches fever pitch. But why is it catching on?
And what’s driving companies to adopt it? In a special series,
JAXenter reporter Diane Kupfer aims to get under the skin of
MQTT. Here, in an interview which took place at
EclipseCon Europe, she speaks with Christian Götz and Dominik
Obermaier – co-founders of dc-square GmbH – about MQTT security,
the community around it, and what drove them to adopt this
protocol.

JAXenter: How did you come across
MQTT?

Christian Goetz: At dc-square we focus on
applications in the field of Machine-to-Machine communication,
above all MQTT. We learned about MQTT through customer projects and
then started making contact with the community on Twitter
and
mqtt.org.

This is how learned about the advantages of MQTT. We use
this knowledge in a targeted way in projects that are brought to us
by customers.

How do you explain this hype around MQTT –
what exactly are the benefits?

Goetz: It has only been open-source and
license-free since 2010, which is when it started spreading. In my
opinion, the explosion of smartphones and mobile devices in general
contributed significantly to the hype.

The numbers are quite impressive. For example, about 80
units per second are connected to the Internet. The hype is also
due in large part to the fast emergence open hardware platforms
such as the

Rasberry Pi
and Arduino.

Easier access to hardware-specific programming is
something many people are grateful for. Thus, the need for
solutions for communication over unreliable networks such as the
cellular network is growing.

The requirements that were identified for a protocol
for monitoring oil pipelines via satellite in 1999 are consistent
with those identified for mobile communication in the 21st century.
MQTT is a lightweight and resource-efficient data transfer. It does
not specify a particular data format and provides the security that
all messages are transmitted, even if the connection breaks off
briefly. Nevertheless, it has been kept relatively simple, which is
important for use on devices with limited resources. MQTT has a
clear focus on the mobile sector because it helps solve problems
that arise as a result of unreliable communication.

“Focus on the mobile sector” means that it is
not the protocol for all applications. Dominik, you also briefly
discussed HTTP and CoAP [ Constrained Application Protocol] in your
EclipseCon talk. What are the advantages and disadvantages of CoAP
and HTTP over MQTT?

Dominik Obermaier: HTTP is as old as
the World Wide Web itself, i.e. it is a very stable protocol. There
is an HTTP library for each programming language. It is standard
and also readable by humans, which means it is not a binary
protocol such as CoAP and MQTT.

If many different systems need to be integrated, it plays
off its strengths. But it also has disadvantages, especially in the
M2M sector. One of them is that it is not binary, hence the
bandwidth usage is not optimized. Apart from this, HTTP generally
has a lot of overhead – the HTTP header, for example – which is not
necessarily required for the application.

The protocol is request-response-based, so you ask the
server for data and wait for a response. For real push, HTTP
communication is not suitable. Nevertheless, HTTP will not
disappear from the scene. It is here to stay and will play an
important role in the long run. One simply can’t afford not to
provide HTTP support for a REST API.

CoAP is a relatively new protocol. It still has a very
small community and there are very few implementations. Generally,
CoAP, similar to HTTP, is a RESTful protocol. It is optimized for
machines and in a way compatible with HTTP. As already mentioned,
its disadvantages are a small community, the fact that it is
difficult to debug because it is binary, and the lack of support
for tools and libraries .

But the community is growing,
right?

Obermaier: Exactly. I think that in the long run
Internet of Things platforms will also have CoAP interfaces in
addition to an HTTP interface – for example, applications that
require an efficient mobile communications.

You’ve previously talked about Quality of
Service Levels (QoS), which MQTT has and HTTP doesn’t. Can you
briefly explain what this is?

Obermaier: In MQTT there are three
QoS levels: 0, 1 and 2. QoS 0 is basically fire it up and forget
it. Since MQTT is based on TCP, a connection via a wired network is
relatively stable. It’s mostly enough to rely on the mechanisms
provided by TCP when sending a message to all the clients.

In a mobile scenario with unstable mobile networks, it
may happen that messages are lost in spite of TCP. With QoS 0, this
means that the message does not arrive. The transmitter is not
informed about it.

In QoS Level 1 it is ensured by the protocol itself
that the message is delivered at least once. As a consequence, the
recipient might receive duplicates under certain circumstances –
for example, if the reply is lost and the client sends the message
again. In principle, this means, however, that the message has
arrived. The highest warranty gives QoS level 2. An extended
protocol flow ensures that the message is delivered to the
recipient exactly once .

If you use these three protocols for different
scenarios, are there still larger gaps to fill? Are there any
important use cases which are not covered and where you would need
to use other protocols such as AMQP?

Obermaier: That depends on the use case.
If one develops applications specifically for mobile communication,
you can already cover a lot. The popular Internet of Things
platforms implement these three protocols, and so far there are no
major gaps. This is also due to the different paradigms on which
the protocols are based: Publish/Subscribe in the case of MQTT and
Request/Response in HTTP and COAP.

So they complement each other pretty
well?

Obermaier: MQTT shines when you need
push-based communication. In request-based communication HTTP or
CoAP are very good. That’s why I currently see no need for
additional protocols.

You just talked about Push, where WebSocket is
surely a great addition, and have also developed a very interesting
solution for HiveMQ, combining WebSocket with MQTT. How does this
work?

Obermaier: The MQTT broker HiveMQ which
is developed by us can natively handle WebSocket. MQTT itself is
based on TCP. Thanks to the native support, MQTT messages can also
be sent to the broker via WebSocket. Thus virtually every browser
can be a MQTT client.

This makes it possible to send push notifications to
users of a web page. JavaScript libraries such as Eclipse Paho can
be used to make a connection to a WebSocket MQTT broker. For the
MQTT broker, this means it doesn’t matter if it is a TCP-based
connection or a connection via WebSocket – it’s an MQTT client.
This enables push notifications in the browser window and
additionally features such as QoS levels, queuing at higher QoS
levels and Last Will and Testament, which you can use to react to
the closing of the browser window.

What are use cases scenarios for this
combination?

Obermaier: Online chats are a good
example, and generally everything that needs push. News tickers are
another one. The interest here is very great, especially in the
community. But there are many other people who develop solutions to
problems of which one hasn’t even thought of yet.

When one uses this approach, each browser and any
smartphone using a browser can be an MQTT device. You get true push
notifications without having to develop your own solutions, which
makes it possible to exchange messages over WebSocket .

Let’s talk about security, which is obviously
a big field, but also very important in the Embedded/M2M/IOT space.
How can MQTT be made secure?

Götz: In general there are several
ways, or actually, several levels, you need to consider. The
protocol requires that when the client starts connecting, a user
name and a password are transmitted. This is not secure at first,
because the username and password are transmitted in plain
text.

This is avoided by establishing a SSL connection
between client and broker, which ensures that the message content
and the user name and the password is not read by third parties or
manipulated. Of course, it should be noted that SSL is a protocol
with an overhead that is not small. Encrypting the actual message
might be an alternative.

In some scenarios, it also makes sense, to protect the
communication via MQTT through an SSH tunnel or VPN connections. In
that case, the SSH or VPN connection guarantees security.

Of course, it’s not enough to provide sufficient
security at the protocol level, but also at the operating system
level of the server on which the broker is running. This falls more
into the area of operations .

Depending on the application, it might also make sense
to protect topics individually at the application level. A common
security measure is to limit the privileges of each client to
certain topics. For example, only some clients could be allowed to
send messages [publish] or receive them [subscribe]. This is not a
functionality of the protocol, but relies on the implementation of
the broker.

Due to the publish-subscribe pattern, the
clients do not know each other. Doesn’t this give MQTT a degree of
safety?

Götz: Exactly. The client must not
know each other, which is a central aspect. However, that does not
directly prevent tampering or interception of data that is to be
transmitted. A potential attacker could, provided he has the
username and password of a client, listen to messages or send
messages that cause damage. Also the assumption that clients do not
know is true only so far as we do not address directly with
identifiers. There also has to be a certain level of knowledge,
because MQTT also data-agnostic, i.e. the protocol does not rely on
fixed structures when it comes to transferring data, but leaves
this to the developer. All clients must follow this in the same
way. A general assumption is that only trusted clients are located
in the MQTT network.

Nevertheless, you should only allow the clients to
exchange the necessary messages and do not give access to
everything, according to the principle of least privilege. This is
especially important for devices that are publicly accessible. One
must ensure that a potential attacker who has physical access to,
for example, a temperature sensor, cannot send control commands and
thus influence other devices.

This sounds like one already has the most
essential tools for the Internet of Things. Why are still so many
proprietary technologies in use, then?

Goetz: There are several reasons for
this. One of them is that while the MQTT community grows every day,
it just takes time to bring MQTT into companies. Development play a
significant role in this. Developers are made aware of MQTT by the
developer community and conferences such as EclipseCon or the JAX,
and they carry this knowledge into their companies. After all, no
one is informed about this by push notifications on his cell phone
[laughs].

In general, the openness of the protocol, the work of the
community and the open tools and libraries contribute to building a
stable ecosystem, which can be used sustainably in companies.
However, apart from a few exceptions, in many firms the idea to
implement everything yourself, is still valued more than a reliance
on open de-facto standards.

What can be done to change this ingrained
corporate culture?

Götz: This is not an easy task. But
as I said, the developers play an important role, since they bring
open technologies into the company, making them more visible. It
often takes a lot of persuasion, for example, when laying out the
benefits and comparing them to established technologies. This takes
time. The community is on the right track, and there is a lot of
commitment. However, these things do not change overnight.

Obermaier: It is also a question of
cost: If you develop your own proprietary protocol for each
project, you always have a high development effort. However, if you
use something that has been in the market for a while, something
that is production-ready and stable, you often have a smaller risk
and cost.

Goetz: The most proprietary protocols are
tailored to specific applications. This is certainly not the right
way. If you use open protocols, you benefit from the ecosystem
around it. In addition, a higher level of maturity is attained
faster because a protocol is often used in various applications and
by different developers .

So higher productivity requirements will
ultimately bring about change?

Obermaier: Yes, exactly.

Anything else you’d like to add about
MQTT?

Goetz: In general, we want to
encourage everyone to try MQTT. Don’t be put off by the different
paradigm – and include it in your technology stack! We do not
necessarily use it in every project. But there are more and more
use cases for which it is advantageous to have a suitable solution
up your sleeve.

Are there any MQTT focused community meetings
or conferences?

Goetz: I know nothing of
MQTT-specific conferences. There are special panels at JAX and
EclipseCon where M2M and MQTT are covered in depth. These obviously
foster exchange, and help grow the community.

Image by Risto Kuulasmaa

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