IBM’s edge computing definition: “Edge computing places networked computing resources as close as possible to where data is created. Edge computing is an important emerging paradigm that can expand your operating model by virtualizing your cloud beyond a data center or cloud computing center. Edge computing moves application workloads from a centralized location to remote locations.”

The advancement in embedded hardware performance over the past few years is one of the main factors which has enabled the rise of edge computing. Edge Computing is strongly associated with cloud computing, IoT, and the application of small but powerful embedded computing platforms such as SBCs (single board computers). Even though edge computing hardware is defined by its location, and not its size, small but powerful platforms make for more convenient installations in a wider range of applications with lower power consumption.

To understand computing on the network edge, we need to reflect on the rise of cloud computing and IoT as these topics are very much correlated. In recent years, cloud computing has become one of the biggest digital trends, and mainly involves the delivery of powerful computing resources to remote devices connected over the Internet. We now see that increasingly, more devices accessing cloud services are IoT appliances that transmit data online for processing/analysis in the cloud. Connecting IoT appliances such as cameras, HVAC equipment, or other building and process automation equipment to the cloud facilitates the creation of smart buildings, smart homes, smart factories, and smart cities. However, transmitting an increasing volume of data for remote, centralized processing is becoming problematic with the rapid rise of IoT. High data transmission to cloud-based services can pose a load on available network capacity, cause latency, result in a slow speed of response, and increase cloud computing costs dramatically. These are some of the main drivers for the rise of edge computing.

Edge computing allows devices that would have relied on the cloud entirely, to process some of their own data locally. For example, a networked camera may now perform local data processing for visual recognition and respond accordingly, instead of sending data it had captured to the cloud, waiting on the data to be processed in the cloud, and receiving the processed response back from the cloud. Eliminating this dependency on the cloud and performing local data processing improves latency (the time taken to generate a response from a data input), as well as reducing the cost and requirement for mass data transmissions associated with all cloud services. Edge computing mitigates latency and bandwidth constraints in new classes of IoT applications by shortening distances between devices and the cloud services they require, as well as reducing network hops. Edge computing is important due to the growing demand for faster responses from AI services, the constant rise of IoT applications, and the increasing pressure on network capacity. As we enter the next step in digital evolution and increasingly utilize artificial intelligence services for optimization of building and process automation equipment in creating smart buildings and smart cities, data processing at the edge will become even more critical.

Consider a neural network algorithm. Neural network algorithms are very powerful once trained but training them requires processing large data sets (the more data fed to the neural net, the more intelligent it will be), and very powerful hardware to execute the training in a timely manner. Training could take weeks on powerful computers depending on the complexity and size of training data. Today, Amazon (Machine Learning on AWS), Microsoft (Azure Cognitive Services), Google (Cloud AI Hub), and IBM (Watson) all offer cloud-based voice recognition, vision recognition, and other AI services that can receive data such as a still image, voice or video feed, and return a cognitive response. These cloud AI services rely on neural networks that have been pre-trained on extremely powerful data center servers. When an input (data) is received, the powerful data center (cloud) servers perform inference to determine what the connected device is looking at. Alternatively, in an edge computing scenario, a neural network is still trained on a data center server, as training requires a lot of computational power, but the algorithm can then be distributed to remote computing devices at the edge.

For example, a neural network algorithm used in a factory manufacturing PCB (printed circuit board) electronics would be shown image examples of correctly produced printed circuit boards and then examples of defective printed circuit boards, so that it can learn to distinguish between the two. However, once training of the neural net is complete, a copy of the neural network algorithm is deployed to connected edge computing hardware, therefore distributing the load and shortening the path to intelligence. This allows the edge device to make cognitive decisions on its own and identify defective printed circuit boards without transmitting any video data to the cloud servers. Latency is therefore greatly improved, and the bandwidth demands on the network are decreased, as data only has to be reported back to the cloud when defective printed circuit boards are identified in order to further train and improve the neural network algorithm. This scenario of training a neural network centrally and deploying copies for execution at the edge has amazing potential.

In the building automation space, next generation analytics software using cloud-based AI to predict and diagnose issues without any human interference (requiring robust data sets and sophisticated neural net algorithms) will soon be a reality. Edge hardware can be useful in any scenario where the roll-out of local computing power at the extremities of a network can reduce reliance on the cloud. This becomes very important in mission-critical systems, or in systems which cannot always be connected to the cloud reliably.

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