What is the Zigbee communications protocol?

Explanation of Zigbee wireless networking protocol and its application for IOT products such as home automation


1What is the Zigbee network protocol? The Simplest View for IOT applications.

Firstly, the Zigbee communications protocol connects low power devices in a personal area network. In addition, Zigbee technology is ideal in an IOT environment where the devices are battery powered. These devices with an attached sensor need to work and communicate in a low power environment.

IOT applications such as home automation and AMR smart metering typically use the Zigbee technology protocol.

2What exactly is the Zigbee wireless communications protocol: The OSI protocol view.

The best way to understand the Zigbee communications protocol is to use the OSI model.

Lets start with the IEEE 802.15.4 Specification. The IEEE 802.15.4 specification (couldnt there be a shorter name!) is a standard for the first two layers. These are the physical and the MAC layers.

Zigbee specifies the communications protocol for all the above layers – from layer 3 and above.

3Zigbee communications technology protocol : The network routing view.

The Zigbee communications protocol works above the physical and MAC layers specified by IEEE 802.15.4. Firstly, the Zigbee protocol can support a star, cluster or wireless mesh technology topology.

The different devices on the Zigbee network are :

  • Zigbee Coordinator
  • Zigbee End Device
  • Zigbee Router

The Zigbee Coordinator device is like the supreme dictator. The Zigbee Communications Protocol supports only one “Zigbee Coordinator” in the entire network. You could also call the Zigbee Coordinator the “Creator” since it is the first device on the network. The Zigbee Coordinator stores all information about the network and has to be always powered.

The Zigbee Router device is like the classic “snitch”. It can pass information from the coordinator and end devices.

The Zigbee end devices are like mere citizens. They sleep most of the time and have to be woken up to communicate with the router or the coordinator. The Zigbee end devices are typically battery operated. The Zigbee end devices are low power devices,typically attached to sensors in the Zigbee network

4How do devices in a Zigbee network communicate?

Firstly,in a typical Zigbee network, any device joining the network first requests the Coordinator for an “address”. This Zigbee technology involves authentication and encryption, and the device is allowed into the network.Next, after getting into the network, a device can communicate with other devices thru the routers that send the data to the destination address. Finally, this may involve waking up some “sleeping” nodes along the way

Since the Zigbee communications protocol does not use IP based addressing, the Zigbee protocol technology differs in comparison to 6LoWPAN networks.

5Zigbee Technology Protocol : The “Security” View

The Zigbee Protocol incorporates major security considerations. This includes provision for crytographic keys, access control lists and encryption. The fundamental security basis for Zigbee is the 128-bit AES encryption support.

Firstly, it is important to note that the security technology in Zigbee devices is mature. However, Zigbee networks in home automation IOT applications were compromised recently by “security holes” in the Zigbee stack.

6What is the Zigbee technology stack? Is it free?

The Zigbee technology stack is free and provided by the major players in the “Zigbee Alliance”. The Zigbee stack is not typically open source under the GPL license. However, alternative open source implementations of Zigbee exist.


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OSI Layer Protocol/Standard
Physical Layer: Layer 1 IEEE 802.15.4
MAC Layer: Layer 2 IEEE 802.15.4
Networking Layer: Layer 3 Zigbee Protocol
Transport Layer: Layer 4 Zigbee Protocol
Session Layer: Layer 5 Zigbee Protocol
Presentation Layer: Layer 6 Zigbee Protocol
Applications Layer: Layer 7 Zigbee Protocol