Sparkplug becomes ISO standard for IIoT connectivity

Industry 4.0
Sheila Zabeu -

November 16, 2023

The Sparkplug 3.0 specification for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) connectivity was announced at the beginning of November as an ISO/IEC international standard. The announcement was made by the Eclipse Foundation, one of the world’s largest open source software foundations, in collaboration with the Eclipse Sparkplug Working Group.

The International Standards Organization (ISO) and the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) are organizations that facilitate the development of international standards that support innovation, sustainability, and trade worldwide. Sparkplug is an open software specification for mission-critical operational technologies (OT) aimed at seamlessly integrating data from applications, sensors, devices, and gateways with most of the IIoT infrastructure. The aim of Sparkplug is to enable the easy deployment of complex IIoT systems in record time.

“The publication of Sparkplug 3.0 as an international standard is very important, not only for its community, but also for any organization that needs to digitally transform its business using IIoT technologies,” says Mike Milinkovich, executive director of the Eclipse Foundation.

According to the foundation, Sparkplug has experienced significant growth in recent years, driven mainly by the transition to IIoT infrastructures in various sectors. It can be an important element for easy integration between the various technologies that make up the complex IIoT ecosystem. “Sparkplug’s new status as an international standard will accelerate its adoption and, at the same time, serve as recognition of its immense value to the industry,” Milinkovich emphasizes.

The Sparkplug Working Group is simultaneously launching a product compatibility program for those interested in implementing the new Sparkplug standard. The program will ensure that Sparkplug-compatible products and implementations demonstrate a high degree of compatibility and interoperability.

Sparkplug will now also be known as ISO/IEC 20237.

Why Sparkplug?

The main element behind the enormous value of the IIoT is the operational data that informs us about the condition of the machines and allows us to carry out preventive maintenance, to name just one example. However, the connectivity and availability of this data are often major challenges in IIoT deployments. As a result, there has been greater adoption of two open-standard messaging protocols to promote data-driven IIoT systems: MQTT and Sparkplug.

MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) is a lightweight publish/subscribe messaging protocol ideal for connecting remote devices. It was created in the late 1990s by Andy Stanford-Clark and Arlen Nipper. The aim of MQTT was to be an alternative to existing messaging protocols, such as HTTP and SMTP, for monitoring in environments with resource constraints or limited bandwidth. The MQTT protocol was very successful in IoT scenarios, but its application in industrial automation systems lacked interoperability. It was then that Sparkplug emerged more recently as an open specification that establishes a standardized format for MQTT messages, facilitating the exchange of data between different devices and applications. It is capable of increasing MQTT interoperability, specifically in IIoT and smart manufacturing environments. The specification integrates data from Operational Technologies (OT) and Information Technologies (IT) in a bidirectional and interoperable way.

“MQTT had already established itself as the ‘de facto’ standard for message transport in the IT and OT sectors. However, it doesn’t specify the content, making interoperability in the IIoT incredibly challenging. Sparkplug, acting as a type of IIoT HTML, is the industry’s best solution for solving this problem and is already widely used in various segments,” explains Milinkovich.

In other words, while MQTT enables the connection between devices in an IIoT framework, Sparkplug gives data the context it needs in industrial environments.

As the following schematic from Hivemq, a member of the Eclipse Sparkplug Working Group, explains, a Sparkplug architecture has OT systems on one side producing data, an MQTT agent in the middle to move the data, and IT systems on the other side consuming the data, all compatible with Sparkplug. The data moves bidirectionally, and Sparkplug adds a context, containing a definition of the MQTT topic structure, MQTT state management and data definitions.

The Hivemq article emphasizes that IT systems can easily “ingest” and “understand” OT data, something that wasn’t possible before Sparkplug without intense, time-consuming and failure-prone coding exercises. This translates into lower costs and more productivity, to say the least. By reducing the barriers between IT and OT systems, the former will be able to act on data from the latter to carry out advanced analysis and modelling.