The Cloud Is Drifting Towards the Edge

By Sanjay Gupta, Vice President & India Country Manager, NXP Semiconductor

sanjay guptaBy applying cloudcomputing technology found in massive data centers to the smallerscale Internet of Things deployed in the field, edge computing will revolutionize embedded systems. Mouse clicks will be all that will deploy new software. The wealth of data generated by IoT endpoints will be speedily analyzed and acted upon. Systems will be deployed quickly and securely managed and operated. Edge computing ultimately will enable rapid development and deployment of novel services, raising the embedded world’s innovation rate. Cloud has undoubtedly transformed information technology (IT). Companies can now provision servers with a click of the mouse instead of physically installing hardware. Software infrastructure such as databases can now be provisioned easily. Big data sets are now easy to handle. Applications can be scaled up and down depending on the load. Cloud computing, for the most part, has been centralized and operated by a specialized cloud service provider, such as Amazon Web Services. Enterprises are starting to explore private clouds for IT workloads, and a hybrid approach joins private and public clouds. In the networking sphere, the idea of placing compute nodes in the access network has been around for a while. At first, people didn’t know what to do with the idea. The usually cited use was for caching. If that’s the only use, deploying a dedicated caching appliance is much simpler. Subsequently, along came Network Function Virtualization, NFV, which applies cloud technology to implement network functions. These functions can be hosted in a data center meaning in the IT cloud, or in the edge network alongside routers, in the access network, or at customer premises. The term edge computing refers to cloud-style computing at any of these locations outside a big data center, and it’s now apparent that it can be used for IoT generally and not only for networking. Cloud management and orchestration technology can be used to provision new applications within the IoT in the same way as IT managers spin up servers in the cloud. An IOT node can access basic services like storage and databases in the same standardized way they’re accessed in the cloud. Big data sets generated by IoT nodes can be processed close by, reducing the latency between analysis and action and the amount of data that otherwise would have to flow through fat pipes to a cloud data center. In summary, edge computing is a big deal.

The Edge Computing Ecosystem

Edge computing is a new class of gateways or systems that perform data processing near the source of the data, or at the edge of the network, working in conjunction with the cloud. For Amazon’s IoT services, its cloud software can also be extended to run on local devices. One application is that a camera collects data which is sent to an IoT gateway for edge processing before it is sent to the cloud for further analytics.

It is also about aggregating IoT data from many users or sensors. In a wind farm, for example, a lot of data – such as wind speed, turbine conditions and amount of power generated – is created. There can be thousands of windmills, and it would be utterly impractical to connect all the data directly to the cloud. Local systems are therefore set up to process the data. Cloud companies—Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Alibaba, etc.— are also developing edge computing. Having built their core businesses on data and the software for processing it, their focus is on extending these technologies to the IOT. The next step is for the services to run outside the data center in edge computing nodes. Ideally, these nodes’ resources and those in the data center are completely fungible. Applications do not know where they reside and their location can move as needed. The applications themselves can run on an IoT node, or alongside services functions on an edge-computing node such as an IoT gateway. The latter case especially makes sense if the IoT node is constrained (meaning it is incapable of hosting services).

Although edge computing provides a consistent software view between cloud services hosted on edge-computing nodes and in data centers, the underlying hardware is fundamentally different. Cloud data centers are renowned for massive scale and homogeneity. Each discrete piece of the data center is beefy (compared to an embedded system) and replicated many times. Because of how server processors are priced, individual compute nodes have two (as opposed to more) processors. Hundreds of these processors may be in a rack, tens of racks in a row, and tens of rows under the same roof, with multiple sites networked together.

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