IoT edge computing simplified for engineers

IoT edge computing is a “mesh network of micro data centers that process or store critical data locally; and push all received data to a central data center or cloud storage repository;, in a footprint of less than 100 square feet,” according to research firm IDC.

It is typically referred to in IoT use cases, where edge devices would collect data; – sometimes massive amounts of it  and send it all to a data center or cloud for processing. Edge computing classifies the data locally so some of it is processed locally;, reducing the backhaul traffic to the central repository.

Typically, this is done by the IoT devices transferring the data to a local device that includes compute;, storage and network connectivity in a small form factor. Data is processed at the edge;, and all or a portion of it is sent to the central processing; or storage repository in a corporate data center;, co-location facility or IaaS cloud.

The Internet of Things is a constantly evolving confluence of technologies. Right now;, a range of ecosystem stakeholders are taking a close look at how distribution of computing infrastructure to the network edge;, supported by an end-to-end architecture connecting edge infrastructure to cloud services, can support IoT use cases. One way to think about it is the edge as a place;, the network endpoint where the end user or device is physically located.

The rise of edge computing is an iteration of a well-known technology cycle that begins with centralized processing and then evolves into more distributed architectures. The internet itself started with a limited number of connected mainframes in government facilities and universities — it didn’t reach mass scale and affordability until “dumb” terminals that interfaced with mainframes were replaced by more capable PCs, which were able to render the graphics-rich pages of an emerging world wide web. Likewise, the mobile revolution largely accelerated when smartphones substituted feature phones at the edge of the cellular network.

Edge computing will have a similar effect on the IoT, fueling strong ecosystem growth as end devices become more powerful and capable of running sophisticated applications.

Why does IoT edge computing matter? 

Edge computing deployments are ideal in a variety of circumstances. One is when IoT devices have poor connectivity and it’s not efficient for IoT devices to be constantly connected to a central cloud.

That data doesn’t necessarily need to be sent over a network as soon as its produced, so instead the local edge computing system compiles the data and sends daily reports to a central data center or cloud for long-term storage. By only sending important data over the network, the edge computing system reduces the data traversing the network.

Edge computing terms and definitions

Like most technology areas, edge computing has its own terminologies. like:

  • Edge devices: These can be any device that produces data. These could be sensors, industrial machines or other devices that produce or collect data.
  • Edge: What the edge is depends on the use case. In a telecommunications field, perhaps the edge is a cell phone or maybe it’s a cell tower. An automotive scenario, the edge of the network could be a car. In manufacturing, it could be a machine on a shop floor; in enterprise IT, the edge could be a laptop.
  • Edge gateway: A gateway is the buffer between where edge computing processing is done and the broader fog network. The gateway is the window into the larger environment beyond the edge of the network.
  • Fat client: Software that can do some data processing in edge devices. This is opposed to a thin client, which would merely transfer data.
  • Edge computing equipment: Edge computing uses a range of existing and new equipment. Many devices, sensors and machines can be outfitted to work in an edge computing environment by simply making them Internet-accessible. Cisco and other hardware vendors have a line of ruggedized network equipment that has hardened exteriors meant to be used in field environments. A range of compute servers, converged systems and even storage-based hardware systems like Amazon Web Service’s Snowball can be used in edge computing deployments.
  • Mobile edge computing: This refers to the buildout of edge computing systems in telecommunications systems, particularly 5G scenarios.

Edge vs. Fog computing

As the edge computing market takes shape, there’s an important term related to edge that is catching on: fog computing.

Fog refers to the network connections between edge devices and the cloud. Edge, on the other hand, refers more specifically to the computational processes being done close to the edge devices. So, fog includes edge computing, but fog would also incorporate the network needed to get processed data to its final destination.

Backers of the Open Fog Consortium, an organization headed by Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, Dell EMC and academic institutions like Princeton and Purdue universities, are developing reference architectures for fog and edge computing deployments.

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