What is the industrial edge, and why does it matter? Is it network infrastructure? Can the edge be found in a sensor that feeds a controller in a plant? Or is it in a smart machine that’s in service halfway around the globe?
In networking, an edge device is a device which provides an entry point into enterprise or service provider core networks. Examples include routers, routing switches, integrated access devices, multiplexers, and a variety of local area network (LAN) and wide area network (WAN) access devices. Edge devices also provide connections into carrier and service provider networks. Network providers and others have been pushing intelligence – compute power and the ability to run applications and analytics – to these edge devices for some time.
But the growth of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) extends the ‘edge’ beyond the network devices, into industrial and commercial devices, machines, and sensors which connect to the network. Edge computing and analytics can, often should be, and increasingly is close to the machines and data sources. As the digitization of industrial systems proceeds, we expect that analysis, decision-making, and control will be physically distributed among edge devices, the network, the cloud, and connected systems, as appropriate. These functions will end up where it makes most sense for them to be.
IIoT will change the way industrial organizations generate, collect, and analyze data. Data will be generated faster and in greater volume than ever before. This will require today’s plant information infrastructure to evolve. One part of this new infrastructure will be intelligent edge devices, which will include the latest generation of controllers, such as DCS’s, PLC’s and PACs. Besides providing control, these edge devices will securely collect, aggregate, filter, and relay data, leveraging their close proximity to industrial processes or production assets. They will also be capable of collaborating with powerful analytics tools, detecting anomalies in real time, and raising alarms so that operators can take appropriate actions.
With edge computing and analytics, data is processed near the source, in sensors, controllers, machines, gateways, and the like. These systems may not send all data back to the cloud, but the data can be used to inform local machine behaviors as it is filtered and integrated. The edge systems may decide what gets sent, where it gets sent and when it gets sent.
Placing intelligence at the edge helps address problems often encountered in industrial settings, such as oil rigs, mines, chemical plants, and factories. These include low bandwidth, low latency, and the perceived need to keeps mission-critical data on site to protect IP.
The edge is also where autonomous machines will be found. These ‘self-driving’ machines need local control to interface with and direct mechanical systems, local analysis and decision making to coordinate with other machines, things, and systems, and usually some remote analysis and decision making to ensure that the autonomous machines are all pulling in the proper direction to support the dynamic business needs. Many of the concepts that surface in Industry 4.0 discussions envision this kind of autonomy and local coordination.
Finally, a brief word about cybersecurity. Any implementation of IIoT must provide end-to-end security from the edge to the cloud. This should include hardening of endpoint devices, protecting communications, managing and controlling policies and updates, and using analytics and remote access to manage and monitor the entire security process. Eventually, security will be designed-in, not bolted-on later as an afterthought. But until then, existing plants will have to work with equipment manufacturers and other partners to create a more secure environment.
As you think about digitizing and transforming your industrial operations or your products and services, pay special attention to the edge. Consider the optimal location for analysis, decision-making, and control, and the best way to distribute these among edge devices, the network, the cloud, and other connected systems.