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Is Fog the New Paradigm for IIoT?

June 1, 2015

Fog computing is getting more attention as cloud matures and as the needs of the Industrial Internet hyperconnected enterprise become clearer.

While not exactly a new buzzword, fog computing is getting more attention as cloud matures and as the needs of the hyperconnected enterprise become clearer.

However, even the exact meaning of fog computing remains somewhat elusive.  What’s more, several other concepts are closely related if not, in fact, indistinguishable, namely: grid, mesh, autonomic, and self-healing computing. In its three letter guise, the concept consciously relates to cloud with fog envisioned as physically much closer to traditional “on premise” terrestrial computing and it recognizes that IIoT will require more pre-processing and analysis at the source of data if network bandwidth is to be preserved.

Cisco, which has crafted its own fog platform called IOx, envisions fog as a three-layer architecture that builds on Cisco’s own IOS networking operating system and Linux. The company even offers a developer site for those ready to embrace the vision.

Another interesting development comes from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, (PNNL) where an edge computing initiative has yielded a reference platform called Kaval, which is built on the Android operating system.

Kaval provides a relatively lightweight platform that for the moment is being harnessed to analyze data in mobile devices by way of a peer-to-peer, ad hoc network that is self-healing.  The platform also defines an interface for all kinds of sensors. Critically, the data and the analysis handled through Kaval can be shared among the devices on the network – both locally and remotely, via the cloud.

Globally, late last year the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), a not-for-profit, standardization organization, announced the inaugural meeting of its Mobile-Edge Computing (MEC) Industry Specification Group (ISG).  The group has 24 members, including Nokia, Fujitsu Laboratories of Europe, Hewlett-Packard France, IBM Europe, Telecom Italia and the Vodafone Group.

According to ETSI, a primary focus of MEC (which aims to support more than just IoT) is creating cloud-computing capabilities and an IT service environment at the edge of the mobile network.  This environment is characterized by ultra-low latency and high bandwidth as well as real-time access to radio network information that can be leveraged by applications.

All of these news tidbits don’t yet add up to the kind of solution industrial users deserve and need.  Not very many companies can spend money on speculation or budget funds for technology in hopes that all the standards and vendors will conveniently coalesce around the same concept at the same time.

But given the realities of bandwidth limits and the potential value of adding more intelligence on the shop floor or anywhere else that is remote from current computing activities, the arguments for an evolution toward fog or edge computing seem very compelling. Certainly monitoring the work of groups like ETSI and PNNL and the more active vendors makes sense at this point.

An out-of-context quote from former US Secretary of the Treasury, Tim Geithner seems to summarize this: “…Some fog is often useful in getting things done.”

Alan R. Earls is a Boston-based writer focused on technology, business, and manufacturing — a field where he spent the earliest part of his career. He has written for publications and websites as diverse as The Boston GlobeComputerworld and Modern Infrastructure as well as Industry, The Manufacturer, and Today's Machining World.