Your smart home's brain. In the cloud or in your home?
The cloud. Data privacy. Fake accounts. Hacking. In this connected world, we’re all aware of the potential issues that threaten our digital livelihood. Yet to most of us, the ‘dark arts’ of technology remain a mystery. And it’s this mystery that causes us to unknowingly leave ourselves vulnerable to digital threats.
Now that cloud-based smart home systems are gaining traction, tech-related issues are hitting closer to home than ever. In the home in fact. Companies including Google, Amazon and Apple offer affordable, feature-rich voice assistants – which record private conversations. Other companies monetise the data collected from their cost-effective smart devices. And then there’s the stories of hackers hijacking control of unprotected systems, putting the owners at the mercy of horrible music and out of control heaters.
While steps are being taken to address these immediate privacy and security concerns, larger questions remain to be answered. If you do not own your data and digital identity, who does? What do they do with it? And what are the larger implications of centralised cloud-servers owned by tech-giants to accumulating, aggregating and monetising mass-amounts of our personal data?
Remember: If a technology company offers their service for "free", then you are the product!
These questions don’t cross our mind when we ask Google or Alexa to order us a pizza. And we don’t often learn of them by meticulously trawling through the T&C’s. Instead, we simply make the decision to buy a product with awesome features at a great price, and learn of the potential consequences after the fact – when a scandalous news story breaks and we begin to question the intentions of products we welcomed into our home.
Thankfully, advancements in modern technology enable us to safeguard ourselves by becoming self-reliant, and disconnected from centralised entities. Many people have already taken their home’s energy ‘off-grid’ with solar PV & batteries, and many are starting to take their smart homes ‘off-cloud’ with smart home systems that operate locally.
As smart home tech is my passion and I strongly believe a home’s system should be owned and operated by the homeowner, my mission for this article is to outline the core-differences between cloud-controlled systems (hubless – such as Shelly devices) and owner-controlled systems (hubs – such as SmartThings) – as it’s this decision that has the largest impact on your smart home system’s privacy, security and efficacy.
Armed with this key information, you can evaluate different systems with confidence and ensure you avoid the ones that do not have your best interests at heart – hopefully before you find yourself deep in their ecosystems.
Hub vs Hubless
“If you want an affordable system, get WiFi or Bluetooth devices and just download the app – you don’t need a hub” is common advice found online. While this may seem like sound logic, the core-factors of a smart home system; performance, security, scalability, longevity, interoperability – are placed secondary to the cost of the system you’re welcoming into your home.
And while it’s true that both hub and hubless systems provide the ‘smarts’ that enable you to control smart devices from your phone, there are some crucial differences as to how they achieve that. The crux of it is as follows:
The Cloud-Based System (WiFi)
The Hub-Based System (Z-Wave or Zigbee)
If you’re looking to lay the foundation for a smart home system that does not suffer from the issues of the cloud-based counterpart, you’ll need a home automation hub – one that supports Z-Wave and/or Zigbee is ideal.
Unlike the cloud, the hub is a tangible object that lives in your home, such as the Fibaro Home Center 3 or Aeotec Smart Home Hub. The hub creates its own network for your smart devices, meaning it’s not reliant on the quality of your WiFi or WiFi router. The benefits of a hub are non-coincidentally the opposite of the issues faced by the cloud:
While it may be clear that I’m an advocate of hub-based systems (for the reasons outlined this article and more), cloud-based systems still have their place. If you’re just dipping your toes in to automation, grabbing a few WiFi devices may help you get a feel for what a smart home can do. But proceed with caution.
Travel too far down this path and the issues discussed in this article will present a larger inconvenience when they inevitably occur – and it will be more costly to migrate to a hub-based system in the future.
On the contrary, if you’ve decided you want a smart home and are still considering the hubless route, I’ll leave you with this. Many of us readily spend $1000+ on a new phone or TV. Yet we look to save dollars on the smart home systems that will have a greater impact on the way we live – when done right.
If you’re serious about your smart home journey and would like to be certain of your direction before taking the leap, drop a comment below or contact us. We’re always happy to help.