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What Is MQTT and Why Is It the Best Protocol for IoT?

Jun 28, 2023
What Is MQTT and Why Is It the Best Protocol for IoT?

According to the research report “Status of the IoT Spring 2022” from IoT Analytics, the IoT market is expected to grow 18% and reach 14.4 billion active connections by 2022.

With such large-scale IoT demand, massive device access and device management pose huge challenges to network bandwidth, communication protocols, and platform service architecture. IoT protocols must address several key issues in IoT device communication: complex and unreliable network environment, small memory and flash memory capacity, and limited processing capacity.

The MQTT protocol was created to address these issues. After many years of development, it has become the preferred protocol for the IoT industry with its advantages of lightweight, efficiency, reliable messaging, massive connection support, and secure bidirectional communication.

IoT Protocols

An Introduction to the MQTT Protocol

MQTT is a lightweight messaging protocol based on publish/subscribe model, specifically designed for IoT applications in low bandwidth and unstable network environments. It can provide real-time reliable messaging services for network-connected devices with minimal code. MQTT protocol is widely used in IoT, Mobile Internet, Smart Hardware, Internet of Vehicles, Smart Cities, Telemedicine, Power, Oil, Energy, and other fields.

MQTT was created by Andy Stanford-Clark of IBM, and Arlen Nipper (then of Arcom Systems, later CTO of Eurotech). According to Nipper, MQTT must have the following features:

  • Simple and easy to implement
  • QoS support (complex device network environment)
  • Lightweight and bandwidth-saving (because bandwidth was expensive back then)
  • Data irrelevant (Payload data format does not matter)
  • Continuous session awareness (always know whether the device is online)

According to Arlen Nipper on IBM Podcast, MQTT was originally named MQ TT. Note the space between MQ and TT. The full name is MQ Telemetry Transport. It is a real-time data transmission protocol that he developed while working on a crude oil pipeline SCADA system for Conoco Phillips in the early 1990s. Its purpose was to allow sensors to communicate with IBM's MQ Integrator via VSAT, which has limited bandwidth. The name MQ TT was chosen in accordance with industry practice because Nipper is a remote sensing and data acquisition and monitoring professional.

Comparison Between MQTT and Other IoT Protocols


HTTP or Hypertext Transfer Protocol is a protocol that has been the backbone of data communication on the world wide web. HTTP is a request-response protocol, meaning the client requests data from the server, and the server responds with the requested data.

In comparison, MQTT is a publish-subscribe protocol, as mentioned earlier. This means that MQTT devices maintain a continuous connection with the server, and data is pushed to the devices as and when it becomes available. This can be more efficient than HTTP in scenarios where data is to be sent in real-time.

How MQTT compares to HTTP:

  • With a minimum message size of 2 bytes, MQTT takes up less network overhead than HTTP.
  • Both MQTT and HTTP can use TCP connections and achieve stable and reliable network connections.
  • MQTT is based on a publish-subscribe model and HTTP is based on request-response, so MQTT supports duplex communication.
  • MQTT can push messages in real-time, but HTTP needs polling for data updates.
  • MQTT is stateful, but HTTP is stateless.
  • MQTT can recover connections from abnormal disconnections, which HTTP cannot achieve.


XMPP, or Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol, is a communication protocol that was originally designed for real-time communication, like chat. XMPP is highly extensible and has been adopted for use in IoT applications.

XMPP and MQTT both use a centralized server (broker), and both support the publish-subscribe model. MQTT protocol is simple and lightweight in design and flexible in routing. It will completely replace the PC-era XMPP protocol in the fields of Mobile Internet and IoT messaging.

How MQTT compares to XMPP:

  • MQTT messages are small and easy to encode and decode, while XMPP is based on heavy XML, and the messages are large and cumbersome to interact with.
  • MQTT is based on a publish-subscribe model, which is more flexible than XMPP's JID-based point-to-point message routing.
  • MQTT supports different types of messages such as JSON, binary, etc. XMPP uses XML to carry messages, and binary must be Base64 encoded and processed by other methods.
  • MQTT guarantees reliable message transmission through QoS; the XMPP protocol does not define a similar mechanism.


Constrained Application Protocol (CoAP) is another protocol designed for IoT applications. CoAP, like MQTT, is designed for constrained devices and networks, but they differ in several ways.

Firstly, MQTT uses a publish-subscribe model, while CoAP uses a client-server model. This makes MQTT more suited to applications where data needs to be distributed to multiple clients, while CoAP is more suitable for one-to-one communication. Secondly, MQTT requires a persistent TCP connection, while CoAP uses UDP, which is more lightweight and suitable for constrained devices.

How MQTT compares to CoAP:

  • CoAP uses UDP for its transport mechanism, which is stateless, while MQTT uses TCP, which is stateful.
  • CoAP is primarily designed for one-to-one communications, whereas MQTT's publish-subscribe model is ideal for one-to-many or many-to-many situations.
  • CoAP includes built-in discovery of services and resources while MQTT relies on a predefined topic namespace.
  • CoAP supports multicast, proxying and caching, features which are not available in MQTT.

Learn more: CoAP Protocol: Key Features, Use Cases, and Pros/Cons


AMQP or Advanced Message Queuing Protocol is a protocol that provides robust messaging capabilities. AMQP is a binary protocol, which makes it more efficient than text-based protocols like MQTT and HTTP.

AMQP provides a lot of features out of the box, like message orientation, queuing, routing, reliability and security. However, the complexity of AMQP can be a drawback in constrained environments. MQTT, being lightweight and simple, is more suitable for such scenarios.

How MQTT compares to AMQP:

  • AMQP has a higher protocol overhead than MQTT's, making MQTT more suitable for constrained environments.
  • MQTT’s topic-based filtering is simpler and more intuitive compared to AMQP’s exchanges and binding keys.
  • MQTT is a more lightweight protocol and has less features compared to AMQP, but this means it is simpler to deploy and provides higher performance for many IoT applications.
  • AMQP has peer-to-peer capability, while MQTT is strictly a broker-centric publish-subscribe protocol.
  • MQTT does not have built-in message acknowledgement and requires an explicit PUBACK, whereas AMQP has an inbuilt message acknowledgement feature.

Learn more: MQTT vs AMQP for IoT Communications: Head to Head

Unique Capabilities of MQTT for IoT

Lightweight and Efficient

MQTT minimizes the extra consumption occupied by the protocol itself, and the minimum message header only needs to occupy 2 bytes. It can run stably in bandwidth-constrained network environments. At the same time, MQTT clients need very small hardware resources and can run on a variety of resource-constrained edge devices.

Reliable Message Delivery

The MQTT protocol provides 3 levels of Quality of Service for messaging, ensuring reliable messaging in different network environments.

  • QoS 0: The message is transmitted at most once. If the client is not available at that time, the message is lost. After a publisher sends a message, it no longer cares whether it is sent to the other side or not, and no retransmission mechanism is set up.
  • QoS 1: The message is transmitted at least once. It contains a simple retransmission mechanism: the publisher sends a message, then waits for an ACK from the receiver, and resends the message if the ACK is not received. This model guarantees that the message will arrive at least once, but it does not guarantee that the message will be repeated.
  • QoS 2: The message is transmitted only once. A retransmission and duplicate message discovery mechanism is designed to ensure that messages reach the other side and arrive strictly only once.

More about MQTT QoS can be found in the blog: Introduction to MQTT QoS.

In addition to QoS, MQTT provides a mechanism of Clean Session. For clients that want to receive messages that were missed during the offline period after reconnecting, you can set the Clean Session to false at connection time. At this time, the server will store the subscription relationship and offline messages for the client and send them to the client when the client is online again.

Connect IoT Devices at Massive Scale

Since its birth, MQTT protocol has taken into account the growing mass of IoT devices. Thanks to its excellent design, MQTT-based IoT applications and services can easily have the capabilities of high concurrency, high throughput, and high scalability.

The support of MQTT broker is indispensable to the connection of massive IoT devices. Currently, the MQTT broker that supports the largest number of concurrent connections is EMQX. The recently released EMQX 5.0 achieved 100 million MQTT connections + 1 million per second messages through a 23-node cluster, making itself the most scalable MQTT broker in the world to date.

Secure Bi-Directional Communication

Relying on the publish-subscribe model, MQTT allows bidirectional messaging between devices and the cloud. The advantage of the publish-subscribe model is that publishers and subscribers do not need to establish a direct connection or be online at the same time. Instead, the message server is responsible for routing and distributing all messages.

Security is the cornerstone of all IoT applications. MQTT supports secure bidirectional communication via TLS/SSL, while the client ID, username and password provided in the MQTT protocol allow users to implement authentication and authorization at the application layer.

Keep Alive and Stateful Sessions

To cope with network instability, MQTT provides a Keep Alive mechanism. In the event of a long period of no message interaction between the client and the server, Keep Alive keeps the connection from being disconnected. If the connection is disconnected, the client can instantly sense it and reconnect immediately.

At the same time, MQTT is designed with Last Will which allows the server to help the client post a will message to a specified MQTT topic if the client is found to be offline abnormally.

In addition, some MQTT brokers, such as EMQX, also provide online and offline event notifications. When the backend service subscribes to a specific topic, it can receive all the clients' online and offline events, which helps the backend service unify the processing of the client’s online and offline events.

Use Cases for MQTT in IoT

Industrial IoT

MQTT is also used extensively in Industrial IoT (IIoT) applications. In these applications, various sensors and devices in a factory are connected to a central server, which monitors and controls the devices.

For instance, a temperature sensor in a furnace might publish its readings to an MQTT broker on the server. The server, which is subscribed to the sensor's topic, receives the readings and can take appropriate action if the temperature exceeds a certain threshold. This enables real-time monitoring and control of factory operations, improving efficiency and safety.

Connected Cars

Finally, MQTT is used in vehicle telematics systems to facilitate communication between vehicles and a central server. In these systems, data from the vehicle, such as location, speed, and fuel level, is collected and published to an MQTT broker on the server. The server, subscribed to the vehicle's topic, receives the data and can use it for various purposes, such as fleet management, vehicle maintenance, and driver safety.

For example, a delivery truck might publish its location data to the server. The server can use this data to track the truck's route and provide real-time updates to the customer. This improves customer satisfaction and enhances the delivery experience.

Home Automation Systems

MQTT has seen wide adoption in home automation systems due to its lightweight nature and ease of use. In these systems, devices such as lights, thermostats, and security cameras are connected to a central hub, which can be controlled remotely via a smartphone app. MQTT is used to facilitate communication between the hub and the devices.

For example, when you use the app to turn on the lights, the app publishes a message to the MQTT broker running on the hub. The lights, which are subscribed to the relevant topic, receive the message and turn on. This allows for real-time control of devices and enhances the user experience.

Wearable Devices

Wearable devices, such as fitness trackers and smartwatches, also use MQTT for communication. These devices collect various data, such as heart rate and step count, and publish it to an MQTT broker on a smartphone or cloud server. The server, which is subscribed to the device’s topic, receives the data and can display it to the user or use it for further analysis.

For example, a fitness tracker might publish your heart rate data while you’re exercising. The server receives the data and can alert you if your heart rate exceeds a safe limit. This enables real-time health monitoring and can potentially save lives.

MQTT 5.0 vs. MQTT 3.1.1 for IoT Use Cases

Four years after MQTT 3.1.1 was released and became an OASIS standard, MQTT 5.0 was released. This is a major improvement and upgrade. It is designed to not only meet the current industry needs, but also to prepare for future development of the industry.

MQTT 5.0 adds several key features including session/message delay, reason codes, topic aliases, user properties, shared subscriptions and so on, which better meet the needs of modern IoT applications. It improves the performance, stability, and scalability of large systems. Currently, MQTT 5.0 has become the preferred protocol for most IoT enterprises, and we recommend that developers who are new to MQTT use this version directly.

If you want to learn more about MQTT 5.0, you can try reading our MQTT 5.0 Explore series of articles, which will introduce you to the important features of MQTT 5.0 in an easy-to-understand way.

Understanding Key MQTT Components

MQTT Broker

The MQTT broker is responsible for receiving client-initiated connections and forwarding messages sent by the client to some other eligible clients. A mature MQTT broker can support massive connections and millions of messages throughput, helping IoT business providers focus on business functionality and quickly create a reliable MQTT application.

EMQX is a widely-used large-scale distributed MQTT broker for IoT. Since its open-source release on GitHub in 2013, it has been downloaded by more than 10 million times worldwide and the cumulative number of connected IoT key devices exceeds 100 million.

You can install EMQX 5.0 open-source version with the following Docker command to experience it.

docker run -d --name emqx -p 1883:1883 -p 8083:8083 -p 8084:8084 -p 8883:8883 -p 18083:18083 emqx/emqx:latest

You can also create fully hosted MQTT services directly on EMQX Cloud. Free trial of EMQX Cloud is available, with no credit card required.

MQTT Client

MQTT applications usually need to implement MQTT communication based on MQTT client libraries. At present, basically all programming languages have matured open-source MQTT client libraries. So, you can refer to the Comprehensive list of MQTT client libraries collated by EMQ to choose a suitable client library to build an MQTT client that meets their business needs. You can also visit the MQTT Programming blog series provided by EMQ to learn how to use MQTT in Java, Python, PHP, Node.js and other programming languages.

MQTT application development is also inseparable from the support of the MQTT testing tool. An easy-to-use and powerful MQTT testing tool can help developers shorten the development cycle and create a stable IoT application.

MQTTX is an open-source cross-platform desktop client. It is easy to use and provides comprehensive MQTT 5.0 functionality, feature testing, and runs on macOS, Linux and Windows. It also provides command line and browser versions to meet MQTT testing needs in different scenarios. You can visit the MQTTX website to download and try it out: https://mqttx.app/.

MQTT Client

MQTT Quick Start for IoT Environments with EMQX

At this point, I believe you have a preliminary understanding of the MQTT protocol. Next, you can visit the blog MQTT Protocol Explained: The Basics and a Quick Tutorial to learn how to start using MQTT, or check out MQTT Guide series of articles to learn about MQTT protocol features, explore more advanced applications of MQTT, and start MQTT application and service development.

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