Factory connectivity and communications have become cornerstone technology trends for automation and control engineers in the last 10 years as the development of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) has emerged as a corporate objective. But as we head into 2020, edge computing is evolving into a unifying force for machine designers implementing “computing at the edge” architectures that provide performance and security in a world offering a wide range of communication solutions.

IIoT, IoT, edge computing, automation, OT, IT

New edge computing architectures are leveraging edge nodes and gateways to connect IoT devices and subsystems with different types of data centers (private, public or hybrid). Edge nodes perform local processing and storage operations. (Image source: Industrial Internet Consortium

A new white paper from the Industrial Internet Consortium, “The Edge Computing Advantage” explores not only the business benefits of edge computing but also how it has become a keystone in the IIoT’s evolution in the smart factory.

The authors of the white paper conclude that edge computing has grown steadily as a way to extend the technology of data centers closer to the physical devices within the factory. Cloud computing offers flexibility and scale, offering benefits by connecting systems, but also need to be balanced against increased security risks.

Emergence of edge computing paradigm

Given that many industrial facilities have maintained a so-called “airgap” between plants and the Internet (by not being physically connected to the Internet), edge computing has continued to emerge. The benefits: better use of bandwidth on factory networks, reduced latency and variation of data along with use of local data and computation that improves privacy, reliability, resiliency and safety.

Along with these practical benefits, edge computing technology itself is providing a flexible approach that uses a fully distributed computing model between IoT devices and layers of edge nodes that provide communications to the data center.

According to the white paper, “the topology of the network enables IoT systems to make use of layers of edge nodes and gateways to interconnect IoT devices and connected subsystems with various types of data centers. The cloud is the ‘highest-order’ resource, and is usually implemented in large, protected data centers. It may be public, private or a hybrid to process and store data for specific vertical applications. Edge nodes perform local processing and storage operations.”

IT and OT convergence

Efficient, reliable and maintainable Industrial IoT data handling presents significant challenges because the data management solutions that exist today have been mainly designed for information technology (IT) applications. A customized solution to fill the gap between the IT and OT (operations technology) applications is required.

A wide range of suppliers are providing intelligent IoT gateways to help build seamless data processing solutions that bridge this gap. Gateways are being used to mass-deploy IoT devices in the field, acquire data and route it on-demand to a centralized system, other devices or a remote site. The use of edge nodes along with traditional routers, gateways and firewalls provides both storage and computation capabilities that is distributed across devices, nodes and the data center itself.

Opportunities and challenges

The white paper concludes with a discussion of both the opportunities and challenges that this new computing paradigm is creating. What’s expected in 2020 is a continuation of the “blurred lines from the edge to the data center, as cloud-computing and edge-computing architectural models merge and emerge”.

To read the full IIC white paper, view this PDF.

Al Presher is a veteran contributing writer for Design News, covering automation and control, motion control, power transmission, robotics, and fluid power.

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