Making Sense of the Edge Computing Hardware Landscape
Edge computing has been around for several years but remains a relatively new and complex concept for many IT shops, even though the related concept of distributed computing has gone in and out of fashion in recent decades. The technology poses a number of thorny questions, many related to immense scale.
How to best implement edge computing can ultimately be a monumental undertaking for common enterprises and industrial IoT.
The edge computing hardware landscape alone is diverse, covering thousands of products from hundreds of vendors. Even so, some engineering advice from experts has begun to emerge, even if standard hardware approaches are elusive. The ideas described here were developed from interviews and the writings of eight analysts, vendors and early edge adopters.
How to Define the Edge
At the start, one question comes to mind: What, exactly, is the edge? One of the simplest definitions comes from IDC: “An intelligent edge provides a distributed compute and data persistence and network aggregation layer and it serves as the intermediary analytics of collected data.”
Some vendors argue that analytics at the edge sometimes requires much more than intermediary decision-making power. For example, an edge computing architecture for an oil rig far at sea with limited connectivity to a distant central data center might need to rival the compute power of an average data center. Compute systems on the rig would need the horsepower to monitor pressure, temperature and other environmental factors to be able to make split-second, automatic decisions to protect equipment and personnel and to keep the rig productive. In that example, edge computing hardware might be roughly equivalent to a ruggedized version of the processing, security, storage and networking capabilities of an entire data center.
At the other extreme, billions of smartphones and coming 5G base stations themselves are usually considered part of the edge. At the least, the potential proliferation of these devices is an important consideration for a long-term edge computing strategy.
The staggering list of available hardware components in the Internet of Things at the edge also includes a seemingly endless array of industrial sensors, connectivity hardware, mini-computing hardware such as Raspberry Pi, gateways, microchips, collaborative robots, self-driving vehicles, drones and unmanned aerial vehicles.
Often, major vendors such as Dell and HPE are embedding various components, such as sensors from third parties, into their servers or appliances. Every IT shop will need to know precisely which components will be part of their IoT infrastructure and, then, their protocols for connectivity to even begin to imagine the underlying value of edge computing in making better decisions for greater productivity and system agility.
IoT Analytics lists more than 300 vendors in the Industrial IoT category, of which 175 are directly related to hardware. The largest hardware category includes 44 connectivity hardware vendors, including some of the largest names in the tech field: Dell, Cisco, Huawei and Siemens. The firm counted 28 sensor vendors (such as ABB and Festo) and 23 microchip vendors (such as Nvidia and ARM).