What is CoAP Protocol - MQTT vs CoAP Detailed

In the world of the Internet of Things (IoT), communication between devices is crucial and costly if we don’t choose protocol wisely. CoAP (Constrained Application Protocol) and MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport), play significant roles in enabling seamless IoT communication. In this blog what is CoAP protocol? CoAP vs MQTT guide, I’ll explore these protocols, their features, use cases, and help you decide when to use one over the other. So, whether you’re a beginner or an IoT enthusiast, by the end of this article, you’ll have a clear understanding of CoAP and MQTT.

What is CoAP Protocol?

CoAP stands for Constrained Application Protocol. It’s a bit of a mouthful, but don’t worry; I’ll break it down. Imagine you have a tiny computer, like the one inside a temperature sensor or a light bulb. These little computers have very little power and memory, so they can’t speak the same way our laptops or phones do. They need a special language, and that’s where CoAP comes in.

CoAP is like a tiny, efficient messenger. It sends very short messages, almost like text messages, to tell other devices what it wants to do or what it needs to know. It’s excellent for small, low-power devices because it doesn’t use much energy or memory.

In other words, CoAP is a specialized web transfer protocol designed for constrained devices and low-power, low-bandwidth networks. It’s like a lightweight version of HTTP (Hypertext Transfer Protocol) tailored for IoT. CoAP is built to be efficient, making it ideal for resource-constrained devices like sensors, actuators, and microcontrollers.

Think of CoAP like a bicycle. It’s fast and efficient for short trips. You use it when you want to quickly ask a question or tell someone something nearby. CoAP is perfect for controlling your smart lights, checking if your door is locked, or finding out the temperature in your room, etc.

Features of CoAP Protocol

CoAP offers several features that make it suitable for IoT applications:

  • Lightweight: CoAP minimizes overhead, making it efficient for small, low-power devices.
  • UDP-based: CoAP uses the User Datagram Protocol (UDP) for communication, which is faster and consumes fewer resources than TCP (Transmission Control Protocol).
  • RESTful: It follows the principles of Representational State Transfer (REST), simplifying interactions with IoT resources.
  • Scalable: CoAP can scale from small, local networks to the internet.
  • Resource Discovery: Devices can discover and interact with resources on other devices using CoAP.
  • Multicast Support: CoAP supports one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-one communication patterns.

How does CoAP Protocol work?

CoAP operates on a client-server model. Here’s a simplified overview of how it works:

  1. Client Request: A CoAP client sends a request to a CoAP server. The request includes a method (e.g., GET, POST, PUT, DELETE) and a Uniform Resource Identifier (URI) indicating the resource the client wants to access.

  2. Server Response: The CoAP server processes the request and sends a response back to the client. The response contains the requested data or status information.

  3. Message Format: CoAP messages are compact, consisting of a header and optional payload. This lightweight format is suitable for low-bandwidth networks.

  4. Observing Resources: CoAP supports resource observation, allowing clients to receive notifications when a resource’s state changes.

CoAP Message Structure

The structure of a CoAP message is relatively straightforward, designed to be lightweight and efficient for IoT (Internet of Things) applications. A CoAP message consists of the following main components:

  1. Header:

    The header is a compact part of the message that contains essential control information. It includes the following fields:

    • Version (2 bits): Specifies the version of the CoAP protocol. The current version is typically 1.

    • Type (2 bits): Defines the message type, which can be one of the following:

      • 0: Confirmable (CON)
      • 1: Non-confirmable (NON)
      • 2: Acknowledgment (ACK)
      • 3: Reset (RST)
    • Token Length (4 bits): Indicates the length of the Token field (if present) in bytes.

    • Code (8 bits): Represents the CoAP method or response code. For example, GET, POST, PUT, and DELETE requests have specific codes, and responses have codes indicating success or error.

    • Message ID (16 bits): A unique identifier for the message, used for matching requests and responses.

  2. Token (optional):

    The Token is an optional field that can be included in the message. Its length is determined by the Token Length field in the header. The Token is typically used to correlate requests and responses, especially in cases where several requests are in transit at the same time.

  3. Options (optional):

    CoAP messages can contain a list of options, which provide additional information about the message. Options include key-value pairs and can specify various details such as content format, maximum age, and URI path. Options have variable lengths and are preceded by a 4-bit option delta and a 4-bit option length.

  4. Payload (optional):

    The payload contains the actual data being transferred. The payload’s length is not fixed and can vary depending on the message’s purpose. For example, it might contain sensor readings, commands, or resource representations.

Example of CoAP Message

Without looking at the example of how does CoAP message looks, it’s very difficult to understand what is CoAP protocol? 

What is CoAP Protocol? CoAP Message Example

In this example:

  1. The CoAP client sends a CoAP Request to a server:

    • It’s a Confirmable (CON) request, which means the client expects an acknowledgment from the server.
    • The Code is GET (0.01), indicating a GET request to retrieve information.
    • The Message ID is 12345, which is a unique identifier for this request.
    • The Token is 6789, a 4-byte token to match responses with requests.
    • The URI Path is /temperature, specifying the resource the client is requesting.
  2. The CoAP server receives the request, processes it, and sends back a CoAP Response:

    • It’s an Acknowledgment (ACK) response, acknowledging the receipt of the client’s request.
    • The Code is Content (2.05), indicating a successful response with content.
    • The Message ID is 12345, matching the request’s Message ID.
    • The Token is 6789, matching the request’s Token.
    • The Payload contains 25.5°C, which is the data or resource the client requested.

This is a simplified example, and real-world CoAP messages can have more options, additional headers, and more complex payloads based on the specific use case and requirements. CoAP is designed to be efficient and suitable for constrained devices and low-power networks in IoT applications.

What is MQTT?

MQTT, or Message Queuing Telemetry Transport, is a lightweight publish-subscribe messaging protocol designed for low-bandwidth, high-latency, or unreliable networks. Developed by IBM in the late 1990s, MQTT has become a go-to choice for many IoT applications. MQTT is like a special messaging system for the Internet of Things (IoT). It helps different devices and computers talk to each other, just like how we send messages to friends using our phones.

Here’s an easy explanation with a real-life example:

Imagine you have a smart home with various devices, like lights, a thermostat, and a security camera. You want all these devices to communicate and work together.

  1. Publishing Messages: Each device in your smart home can send out messages to a central hub. These messages might contain information like “the lights should turn on” or “the temperature is 72°F.”

  2. Subscribing to Messages: Other devices can listen in and subscribe to these messages. For example, your thermostat could subscribe to messages from the temperature sensor, and your lights could subscribe to messages about when to turn on or off.

  3. Real-Life Example: Let’s say you have a motion sensor at your front door. When someone approaches, the sensor sends a message to the central hub, saying, “Motion detected at the front door.” Your security camera, which is subscribed to this message, starts recording. At the same time, your smart lights, also subscribed, turn on to welcome the visitor.

  4. Efficient Communication: MQTT is really good at making sure messages get delivered, even if the devices are far apart or have a weak connection. It’s like sending a letter through the postal service and being certain it will arrive.

Features of MQTT

MQTT offers the following features that make it suitable for IoT:

  • Publish-Subscribe Model: Devices can publish messages to topics, and other devices subscribe to those topics of interest.
  • Quality of Service (QoS): MQTT supports three levels of message delivery assurance (QoS 0, 1, 2), allowing you to choose the appropriate level of reliability for your application.
  • Retained Messages: MQTT brokers can retain the last message sent on a topic, ensuring new subscribers receive the latest data.
  • Last Will and Testament (LWT): Clients can specify a “will” message to be sent by the broker in case the client unexpectedly disconnects.
  • Persistence: MQTT brokers can store messages, ensuring no data is lost even if clients are offline.
  • Security: MQTT can be secured using various mechanisms, including username/password authentication and Transport Layer Security (TLS) encryption.

How Does MQTT Works?

MQTT operates on a publish-subscribe model, consisting of the following components:

  • Broker: A central server that manages message distribution. Devices publish messages to the broker, and the broker ensures messages reach the right subscribers.

  • Publisher: A device or application that sends messages to specific topics on the broker.

  • Subscriber: A device or application that receives messages by subscribing to specific topics on the broker.

  • Topic: A label that categorizes messages. Subscribers express their interest in specific topics to receive relevant messages.

MQTT Message Structure

The structure of an MQTT (Message Queuing Telemetry Transport) message is relatively simple but versatile. An MQTT message consists of two main parts: the fixed header and the variable header and payload. Let’s break down each of these components:

  1. Fixed Header:

    The fixed header is a small part of the message that contains essential information about the message itself. It includes the following fields:

    • Message Type (4 bits): This field specifies the type of MQTT message. There are several message types, including:

      • CONNECT: Used to establish a connection.
      • PUBLISH: Used to send data.
      • SUBSCRIBE: Used to subscribe to specific topics.
      • UNSUBSCRIBE: Used to unsubscribe from topics.
      • PINGREQ and PINGRESP: Used for keep-alive and connection monitoring.
      • DISCONNECT: Used to close a connection.
    • Duplication Flag (1 bit): This flag is used for quality of service (QoS) levels 1 and 2 to indicate that a message might be a duplicate.

    • Quality of Service (QoS) Level (2 bits): This field specifies the desired level of message delivery assurance. It can be one of the following:

      • QoS 0: At most once (fire and forget).
      • QoS 1: At least once (acknowledgment required).
      • QoS 2: Exactly once (guaranteed delivery).
    • Retain Flag (1 bit): This flag indicates whether the message should be retained by the broker. If retained, the broker will store the last message with that topic and deliver it to future subscribers.

    • Remaining Length (variable bytes): This field indicates the length of the variable header and payload. It’s encoded using a variable-length encoding scheme called “remaining length encoding.”

  2. Variable Header and Payload:

    The variable header and payload of an MQTT message can vary significantly depending on the message type. Here are some examples:

    • CONNECT Message: This message is used to establish a connection to the broker. The variable header contains information like the protocol name (e.g., “MQTT”), protocol level (e.g., 4), and connection flags. The payload may include information such as the client identifier and authentication credentials.

    • PUBLISH Message: This message is used to send data. The variable header includes the topic name, the message identifier (if QoS is 1 or 2), and the retain flag. The payload contains the actual data being published.

    • SUBSCRIBE Message: This message is used to subscribe to specific topics. The variable header contains the message identifier, and the payload contains a list of topics and their associated QoS levels.

    • UNSUBSCRIBE Message: This message is used to unsubscribe from topics. The variable header contains the message identifier, and the payload contains a list of topics to unsubscribe from.

    • PINGREQ and PINGRESP Messages: These messages are used for keep-alive and connection monitoring. They have no payload, and the variable header is minimal.

    • DISCONNECT Message: This message is used to close a connection gracefully. It has no payload, and the variable header is minimal.

Example of MQTT Message

Topic: home/livingroom/lights

Message: “Turn on the lights”

QoS Level: 1 (At least once)

In this example:

  • Topic: home/living-room/lights is the topic of the message. Topics act as channels or categories that messages are sent to. This message is intended for devices related to the living room lights.

  • Message: "Turn on the lights" is the actual content of the message. It tells the devices subscribed to the home/living-room/lights topic to turn on the lights.

  • QoS Level: The Quality of Service (QoS) level is set to 1, which means that the message should be delivered at least once. This ensures that the message gets to its destination even if there are network issues or disruptions.

This message is like a note sent to all the devices in the living room that are listening to the home/living-room/lights channel. When those devices receive the message, they know to turn on the lights.

CoAP vs. MQTT: A Comprehensive Comparison

Now that we understand the basics of CoAP and MQTT let’s see CoAP vs MQTT by comparing them based on various factors and use cases:

Aspect CoAP MQTT
Message Format Compact header with optional options and payload Compact structure with a header and payload
Scalability Scales from local networks to the internet Scales for large numbers of clients and topics
Power and Resource Efficiency Designed to be lightweight and efficient Efficient but may require more resources
Publish-Subscribe vs. Request-Response Primarily uses request-response model Built around a publish-subscribe model
Reliability and QoS Offers some reliability, may not match MQTT’s QoS levels Provides three QoS levels (0, 1, 2) for message delivery
Security Can be secured using DTLS for encryption and authentication Can be secured using TLS/SSL, username/password, etc.
Use Cases Suitable for quick, lightweight requests or updates, e.g., smart home devices, sensors, industrial automation Ideal for reliable message delivery, e.g., remote monitoring, telemetry, real-time data exchange

CoAP vs. MQTT: A Comprehensive Comparison

Message Format Comparison

  • CoAP: CoAP messages are compact, with a simple header and optional options and payload. This makes CoAP efficient for low-bandwidth networks.

  • MQTT: MQTT messages also have a compact structure, with a header and payload. MQTT’s header includes flags for QoS and message type.


  • CoAP: CoAP can scale from small local networks to the internet. It is particularly well-suited for constrained devices.

  • MQTT: MQTT can scale to handle large numbers of clients and topics. It’s commonly used in scenarios where many devices need to communicate with each other or with a central server.

Power and Resource Efficiency

  • CoAP: CoAP is designed to be lightweight and efficient, making it suitable for devices with limited processing power and battery life.

  • MQTT: MQTT is efficient but may require more resources compared to CoAP due to its publish-subscribe mechanism.

Publish-Subscribe vs. Request-Response

  • CoAP: CoAP primarily uses a request-response model, where a client requests information or actions from a server. It supports resource observation for notifying clients of resource changes.

  • MQTT: MQTT is built around a publish-subscribe model, where devices publish messages to topics of interest, and other devices subscribe to those topics to receive messages.

Reliability and QoS (Quality of Service)

  • CoAP: CoAP offers some level of reliability through retransmission and acknowledgments. However, it may not provide the same level of reliability as MQTT’s QoS levels.

  • MQTT: MQTT provides three levels of QoS (0, 1, 2) to ensure message delivery. This makes it suitable for applications where data integrity is critical.


  • CoAP: CoAP can be secured using Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) for encryption and authentication.

  • MQTT: MQTT can be secured using various methods, including TLS/SSL encryption and username/password authentication.

Use Cases Comparison

  • CoAP: CoAP is well-suited for scenarios where devices need to make quick, lightweight requests or updates. Examples include smart home devices (light bulbs, thermostats), environmental sensors, and industrial automation.

  • MQTT: MQTT shines in applications where message delivery reliability is essential, and devices need to subscribe to specific topics for updates. Examples include remote monitoring, telemetry, and real-time data exchange.

When to Use CoAP

Now that we’ve explored CoAP’s features and compared it to MQTT let’s consider scenarios where CoAP is the better choice:

IoT Scenarios Suited for CoAP

  1. Smart Home Devices: CoAP is ideal for controlling smart home devices like light bulbs, door locks, and thermostats. It enables quick interactions between your smartphone and these devices.

  2. Sensor Networks: CoAP is perfect for gathering data from sensors in a local area, such as temperature, humidity, or motion sensors. It conserves energy and bandwidth, making it suitable for battery-powered sensors.

  3. Industrial Automation: In industrial settings, CoAP can be used to control and monitor machinery and equipment efficiently.

  4. Local Control: When you need to control devices within a limited geographical area, CoAP’s low overhead and quick response times make it a solid choice.

Code Samples of CoAP for ESP32

#include <CoAPSimple.h>
#include <WiFi.h>

// Define your WiFi credentials
const char* ssid = “YourWiFiSSID”;
const char* password = “YourWiFiPassword”;

// Create a Coap client instance
Coap coap;

void setup() {
// Initialize Serial communication

// Connect to Wi-Fi
WiFi.begin(ssid, password);
while (WiFi.status() != WL_CONNECTED) {
Serial.println(“Connecting to WiFi…”);
Serial.println(“Connected to WiFi”);

void loop() {
// Create a CoAP request
CoapPacket request = coap.newRequest(CONFIRMABLE, GET);

// Send the request
CoapPacket response = coap.sendRequest(request);

// Check if the response was received successfully
if (response.size() > 0) {
// Extract and print the response payload
Serial.print(“Response: “);
} else {
Serial.println(“No response received.”);

// Wait before sending the next request

Here’s a breakdown of the code:

  1. Import the necessary libraries for CoAP and Wi-Fi.
  2. Define your Wi-Fi credentials.
  3. Create a CoAP client instance.
  4. In the setup function, initialize serial communication, connect to Wi-Fi, and wait for a successful connection.
  5. In the loop function, create a CoAP request, send it to the CoAP server, and receive the response.
  6. Check if a response was received, and if so, print the response payload.
  7. Add a delay before sending the next request to avoid flooding the server.

This code should allow your ESP32 to communicate with a CoAP server using the CoAPSimple library. Be sure to install the CoAPSimple library through the Arduino Library Manager before uploading the code to your ESP32.

Popular CoAP Libraries and Tools

There are several libraries and tools available for working with CoAP:

  • aiocoap: A Python library for creating CoAP clients and servers.
  • Copper (Cu): A Firefox extension for testing CoAP resources.
  • MicroCoAP: A minimalistic CoAP library for microcontrollers.

6. When to Use MQTT

Now, let’s explore scenarios where MQTT would be the better choice:

IoT Scenarios Suited for MQTT

  1. Remote Monitoring: When you need to monitor and collect data from remote devices or locations, MQTT’s reliability ensures that data is received, even with intermittent connectivity.

  2. Telemetry: In applications like vehicle tracking and remote sensor networks, MQTT ensures that data is efficiently collected and transmitted to a central server.

  3. Real-time Data Exchange: In scenarios where multiple devices need to communicate in real-time, MQTT’s publish-subscribe model allows for immediate updates.

  4. Large-Scale IoT Deployments: MQTT’s scalability makes it suitable for handling a large number of devices and topics.

Code Samples of MQTT for ESP32

#include <WiFi.h>
#include <PubSubClient.h>

// Define your Wi-Fi credentials
const char* ssid = “YourWiFiSSID”;
const char* password = “YourWiFiPassword”;

// Define MQTT broker details
const char* mqttServer = “mqtt.eclipse.org”;
const int mqttPort = 1883;
const char* mqttTopic = “iot/sensors”;

// Initialize WiFi and MQTT client
WiFiClient espClient;
PubSubClient client(espClient);

// Callback function for when MQTT client is connected
void callback(char* topic, byte* payload, unsigned int length) {
Serial.print(“Received message: “);
for (int i = 0; i < length; i++) {

void setup() {
// Initialize Serial communication

// Connect to Wi-Fi
WiFi.begin(ssid, password);
while (WiFi.status() != WL_CONNECTED) {
Serial.println(“Connecting to WiFi…”);
Serial.println(“Connected to WiFi”);

// Set MQTT callback function

// Connect to MQTT broker
client.setServer(mqttServer, mqttPort);
while (!client.connected()) {
Serial.println(“Connecting to MQTT broker…”);
if (client.connect(“ESP32Client”)) {
Serial.println(“Connected to MQTT broker”);
} else {
Serial.print(“Failed, rc=”);
Serial.println(” Retrying in 5 seconds…”);

void loop() {

Here’s a breakdown of the code:

  1. Import the necessary libraries for Wi-Fi and MQTT (PubSubClient).
  2. Define your Wi-Fi credentials, MQTT broker details, and the MQTT topic you want to subscribe to.
  3. Initialize Wi-Fi and the MQTT client.
  4. Create a callback function that is called when a message is received.
  5. In the setup function, initialize serial communication, connect to Wi-Fi, set up the MQTT callback function, and connect to the MQTT broker.
  6. In the loop function, continuously call the MQTT client’s loop method to maintain the connection and handle incoming messages.

This code should allow your ESP32 to connect to an MQTT broker and subscribe to the specified topic using the PubSubClient library.

Popular MQTT Libraries and Tools

Several libraries and tools simplify working with MQTT:

  • paho-mqtt: A popular Python library for MQTT client development.
  • Mosquitto: An open-source MQTT broker that can be used for local or cloud-based MQTT deployments.
  • Node-RED: A flow-based development tool for visual programming of IoT applications, including MQTT integration.

Use Cases and Real-World Applications

CoAP Use Cases

1. Smart Homes

CoAP is widely used in smart homes to control devices like lights, thermostats, and door locks. Its low overhead and quick response times make it perfect for these applications.

2. Industrial IoT (IIoT)

In industrial Internet of Thing, CoAP is used to monitor and control machinery, sensors, and equipment efficiently. It plays a crucial role in process automation and data collection.

3. Environmental Monitoring

Environmental sensors that measure factors like temperature, humidity, and air quality often use CoAP to transmit data to central servers or gateways.

4. Healthcare

In healthcare, CoAP enables communication between medical devices and patient monitoring systems. It ensures that critical data is delivered promptly and reliably.

MQTT Use Cases

1. Telemetry and Remote Monitoring

MQTT is widely employed in telemetry systems, such as vehicle tracking and remote sensor networks. It ensures that data is efficiently collected and transmitted, even in remote locations.

2. Home Automation and Security

For home automation systems that require real-time updates and remote control, MQTT’s publish-subscribe model is a preferred choice.

3. Agriculture

In precision agriculture, MQTT is used to collect data from sensors in the field, enabling farmers to make informed decisions about irrigation, crop health, and more.

4. Energy Management

Energy management systems use MQTT to monitor and control power consumption in buildings and industrial facilities, optimizing energy usage.

Security Considerations

How to secure CoAP Protocol

Securing CoAP communication is crucial, especially when sensitive data is involved. To secure CoAP, consider the following:

  • Use DTLS: Datagram Transport Layer Security (DTLS) is a protocol for securing UDP-based communication. It provides encryption, authentication, and data integrity.

  • Access Control: Implement access control mechanisms to restrict who can access CoAP resources.

  • Firmware Updates: Ensure that devices can receive secure firmware updates to patch vulnerabilities.

How to Secure MQTT Protocol

Securing MQTT communication is equally important. Here’s how to do it:

  • TLS/SSL Encryption: Use Transport Layer Security (TLS) or Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) to encrypt MQTT communication between clients and brokers.

  • Authentication: Implement username/password authentication or other authentication mechanisms to verify the identity of clients.

  • Access Control Lists (ACLs): Use ACLs to control which clients can publish to or subscribe to specific topics.


In the world of IoT, choosing the right communication protocol can significantly impact the success of your projects. CoAP and MQTT are two powerful options, each with its strengths. Remember these key takeaways when deciding which protocol to use:

  • CoAP is lightweight, efficient, and ideal for quick, local interactions and resource-constrained devices.

  • MQTT offers reliability, scalability, and real-time communication, making it suitable for remote monitoring, telemetry, and large-scale deployments.

Consider your specific project requirements and objectives when selecting between CoAP and MQTT. Whichever protocol you choose, you’re now equipped with the knowledge to make an informed decision and embark on your IoT journey.

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