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Edge Computing - a short introduction

In the age of the cloud, the rise of edge computing means that high-performance systems are deployed into challenging environments. Why is edge computing important, and how are these systems connected?

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The Internet: Computing in the Cloud

The internet has evolved from a method of sharing information to a powerful computing tool. Hardware is not required onsite to store or process information – both are outsourced to data centres, located anywhere in the world. With cloud computing devices, we are no longer tied to one location or limited by the applications installed on our devices.

Drawing of computers linking to the cloud

Within organisations, equipment can now use machine-to-machine communication, powering the Internet of Things (IoT). Factories work as single entities, sharing data to provide more efficient processes, regardless of physical location.

If the Cloud is the Future, why Edge Computing?

Cloud computing relies on an internet connection to process and store data remotely; edge computing places its processing power as close as possible to the point of use.

The term refers to data processing equipment installed on-site at, or very close to, the location generating the data. This is referred to as the ‘edge’ of the network, hence edge computing.

In an age where the cloud provides access to enormous storage and computing potential, the recent explosion in the use of edge computing might seem like a backwards step. But as the huge amount of data collected and transmitted grows, so does the cost. Processing data at the edge before transmitting decreases the volume of data and the load on the communication equipment.


The Problem with Latency

Latency is the time needed for a command to be completed. Latency introduced when data is transmitted to the cloud is undesirable in high-speed manufacturing or critically, in safety systems. Edge computing processes locally, minimizing latency. Automated feedback commands are given without delay.

Edge computing also enables rapid reconfiguration. Industrial controllers at the edge can be repurposed quickly, using cloud services to switch programmes or receive new software.


Real-World Applications for Edge Computing

The smart factory combines all operations: production and logistics to maintenance and management. Edge computing reduces the volume of information shared around a smart factory, and provides the responsiveness required by manufacturing processes.

Agriculture is adopting the same connected approach. The large and dispersed nature of a farm makes both edge and cloud computing attractive. Autonomous sensors, machinery and vehicles use local controllers to supervise their operation, with communication over 5G to the cloud-based management of the farm.

A red smart tractor ploughing a field

In urban environments, traffic management communicates with vehicles to create an integrated network. With V2X (vehicle-to-X) technology, cars share information with other road users and the signalling infrastructure. Latency from using the cloud to analyse road conditions and potential hazards would compromise safety, so vehicles use edge computing to ensure the fastest response times.

Advanced Computing in Harsh Environments

Computing equipment at the edge of the network is close to the point of use, with exposure to a wide range of conditions. The factory floor, smart farm and urban streets can be unforgiving places:

  • Extremes of temperature
  • Dangerous chemicals
  • Vibration and weather
  • Wind and weather
  • Accidental or malicious damage

Control systems must be robust enough to perform under these harsh conditions or be fitted with additional protection. The electronic connectors providing vital links with sensors, power, the nearby network, and the cloud beyond need superior reliability and performance to prevent breaks in communication.

The Infrastructure around Edge Computing

The next generation of smart systems – whether factory, farm or city – form highly complex infrastructures. A combination of edge and cloud computing equipment working in harmony will provide the smartest, most efficient, and safest systems.

Man using tablet to view factory machine statistics

Using these technologies in the field (whether an actual field, or the factory floor) demands connectors to withstand the harshest conditions and still deliver the performance needed. Choosing the right connector is vital to harnessing the full potential of edge computing.

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