nRF24l01+ Library Roundup
Overview and Status of RF24 Arduino/Linux Comm. Stack
Six, seven years? Has it really been that long? According to GitHub that is in fact the case, as my first commits to my own fork of the RF24 library took place in early 2014. It all started by identifying existing limitations in the available libraries and working to achieve the highest level of performance and reliability possible. The main fork for RF24 at the time was written and maintained by ManiacBug, but he dropped off the scene shortly after publishing this very nicely designed library. Other users attempted to add support for various devices and address certain bugs, but nobody had really taken a thorough look at the capabilities of the hardware vs what was achievable at the time. Only through a lot of reading, testing and learning to program was I able to make those initial changes to begin work improving the RF24 core library. Looking back now, I am very grateful that I picked ManiacBugs code base as a place to get back into programming in C/C++, as it was well thought out and I discovered ways of doing things that I previously did not understand or know about.
And with that began a long and arduous journey into the internal workings of nrf24l01+, Arduino (AVR) and RPi (Linux) devices with the stated goal of optimizing the library to whatever extent possible. Once the RF24 library began to take shape, I began looking at the RF24Network library, another very nicely designed bit of code by ManiacBug, but it had its limitations and problems. Many issues were addressed, features and functionality added in order to push the nrf24 devices to the test in a multi-device scenario. It performed much better than expected using this OSI Layer 3 (network) library.
At that point, I began to really understand the OSI model, how the different layers actually work together and what they do down the last bit. Based on a number of conversations and user input, I came up with the idea for RF24Mesh, which is basically another layer on top of RF24Network -> RF24 that handles addressing, similar to DHCP, but able to verify connectivity and reconnect nodes at any point in the mesh. This allows nodes to move around and reconnect quickly as required while maintaining the mesh structure. The Network & Mesh layers use a 'master' node that acts like the gateway in a standard IP network, and it provides addressing and resolution for RF24Mesh.
Based on input and discussions with users and the performance of the radio modules when used in a multi-device mesh/network scenario along with the emergence of IoT and sensor networks, it seemed like the thing to do would be to work my way up the OSI model, so that is exactly what I did. Upon discovering the uIP stack for Arduino, I realized it would be possible to add ip4 support to some of the smallest devices like ATmega328 AVRs, and larger devices like RPi could just use their own IP stack and encryption etc. The uIP stack and related software was quite a challenge to understand and implement, as uIP is written in C and is designed to be as small and lightweight as possible as opposed to being human readable and easy to understand. The UIPEthernet library was also essential in helping me to understand and implement RF24Ethernet.
With that, an OSI RF24 comm. stack was established, with RF24, RF24Network, RF24Mesh, RF24Ethernet and RF24Gateway libraries all working together and inter-operational at any of the layers. This means that on a RF24Gateway/RF24Ethernet mesh network incorporating RPi and Arduino nodes, devices can choose to operate using OSI layer 2,3,4,5 and/or 7 (Data Link, Network, Transport, Session, Application). When using the higher layer libraries (RF24Gateway & RF24Ethernet) standard IP connectivity is established and devices can utilize standard encryption & authentication protocols (SSH, HTTPS etc.) to secure their traffic as per the OSI model.
The RF24 Communication Stack vs The OSI Model
With the associated libraries and enhanced functionality, the RF24 comm. stack is able to provide IoT and sensor network connectivity and capabilities to suit many different scenarios at a very low price point with much lower power consumption than WiFi networks. With the production of many devices like RPi, ESP8266 and ESP32 which support WiFi, users can construct and deploy IoT networks very easily, extending them as required.
Even now, it is really kind of cool to witness the system in action, using these little radios on tiny little computers we refer to as 'Arduinos'. The methodology and processes in place to manage a network of devices, fragmentation & reassembly, mitigate wireless data collisions and ensure delivery of data are quite effective, from the radio hardware and auto-ack functionality, all the way up to the TCP/IP and Mesh levels. With TCP/IP for example, using Raspberry Pi devices, the MTU is 1500-bytes, so each packet can require up to 63 sequential, successful data transmissions at the core RF24 layer, but this still works relatively well in real-world testing/usage.
It has been a lot of fun and a great learning experience so far. The creation of RF24Gateway really allowed the limits of the radios to be tested, and provided an excuse to play around with different network/IP configurations, routing scenarios and traffic handling at any level of the OSI model. A full and complete understanding of how devices operate on the internet or similar networks helps dramatically in troubleshooting, testing and development of systems and software that operate using these protocols.
Going forward, the development of the RF24 libraries has slowed significantly along with bug reports and issues. My focus has recently been on cleaning things up, finding and fixing bugs, mostly in the higher layers, and improving the user interface via examples and documentation. I had previously almost given up on the RF24Gateway and Ethernet layers as being too difficult to fix, but with the rise of more powerful MCUs and the potential for expanding their capabilities, it seems worthwhile to take another crack at working out bugs and issues.
It would be nice to find another similar radio device with lower power consumption and/or more advanced capabilities and throughput to create more robust networks and mesh capabilities. The current design allows for speeds up to about 20KB/s over IP (RF24Gateway) using two Linux devices, but it would be nice to have a higher throughput to allow for more nodes, longer range and more advanced communication scenarios.
In conclusion I want to extend a big thank you to everybody who contributed ideas, analysis, information and programming skills along the way. An extra thank you to Avamander (GitHub) who has played a big part in ongoing maintenance, support and development!
Update: Aug 2020
Wow, I mentioned that I would be working on finding and fixing bugs due to the slowdown involving support, dev and maintenance etc, but did not expect to spend so much time, or that I would be able to identify so many issues, their root cause and a solution. Some pretty significant issues have been fixed throughout the RF24 stack, including 1 major bug in RF24, affecting all libraries, a number of bugs/issues affecting functionality and reliability in RF24Network and RF24Mesh, and a memory issue in RF24Ethernet affecting stability.
RF24Gateway has been updated with better handling of interrupts, a few corrections and the first release made, v1.0 due to all the issues that have been addressed. Again, a portion of these improvements are due to assistance, testing and input from a select few users. Users should notice a marked improvement in stability, functionality and the ability to recover from significant errors/hardware issues.
RF24 Communication Stack: