As much as the benefits and acceptance of cloud computing are growing, the need for edge computing is mounting as well. Along with the secure data aggregation and complex analytics that cloud services can offer is the need—particularly for process or hybrid industries with distributed assets—to get more immediate intelligence from the data closer to the source.
A mix of edge and cloud-based technologies will likely form the foundation for the future automation infrastructure, according to a recent market report from ARC Advisory Group. Industrial automation users overwhelmingly understand the importance of edge computing—91 percent of those surveyed by ARC expect better systems and connectivity at the edge to enable improved real-time decision-making. But they also recognize the need for the edge proposition to be an easier one. More than 90 percent indicated that, as edge computing grows, organizations will need a simplified edge infrastructure that can be remotely managed.
The proliferation of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), virtualization and more is pushing people outside their comfort zones, away from what they know, commented John Fryer, senior director of industry solutions at Stratus Technologies, during a meeting at Rockwell’s Automation Fair in Houston last month. “Most people are dipping a toe into the IoT water, and they’re asking themselves if they really want to get involved,” he said.
Though he expects attitudes to change with time, there is nonetheless a push for simpler systems at the edge. Stratus—which has built its business on simple, one-box systems that proactively prevent failure—is taking its message to the edge. At the IoT Tech Expo in Santa Clara, Calif., Stratus unveiled its edge computing product strategy and direction, including the latest version of its flagship product, ftServer, and a preview of a converged edge system that offers enhanced remote management services.
The products simplify the continuous availability and remote management of mission-critical edge applications, whether operations are in a data center, on a plant floor or at the network edge. Version nine of Stratus’ ftServer is an intelligent, self-monitoring, self-diagnosing, self-healing edge server. It’s best suited for remote hybrid deployments or customers within process manufacturing, where fault tolerance is business-critical. The latest version brings VMware support along with better performance, enhanced availability and improved manageability.
Moving into next year, Stratus will introduce a new family of multi-function, virtualized, converged edge systems, designed with operations end users in mind. The systems can be deployed alone or in conjunction with ftServer. Stratus previewed a prototype of the edge computing system at IoT Tech Expo, and it’s also being tested with key customers and partners. Specific use cases demonstrated at the expo included real-time analytics and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) monitoring.
The combination of ftServer and the forthcoming operational technology (OT) systems, along with Stratus’ overall vision for multi-tiered edge computing, align with the view from ARC’s survey respondents that IIoT deployments will be a mix of edge and cloud-based technologies.
Certainly, the demand for edge computing is real and growing. “Operational issues such as improving asset performance management to improve both production as well as reduce unplanned downtime will drive end users to deploy edge computing. And the companies who are quick to take advantage of self-managed edge computing infrastructures will be better able to unlock the data that has long been stranded inside machines and processes,” said Craig Resnick, analyst and vice president at ARC. “They’ll also be better able to quickly identify production inefficiencies, compare product quality against manufacturing conditions and pinpoint potential safety, production or environmental issues. Remotely managing this edge infrastructure will immediately connect operators with off-site experts to more quickly resolve or, better yet, avoid downtime events.”
Right now, operations are typically overwhelmed with the amount of data they gather. Too much of it gets stored or thrown away, Fryer commented. “But for IIoT to work effectively, it means there will be a lot more data,” he added. “With IIoT, that data becomes increasingly important. If you lose it, you’re losing some of the secret sauce.”
The systems managing the data at the edge—outside data centers and cloud servers—need to be easy and reliable. “It needs to be simple, with capabilities and serviceability built into it,” Fryer said. “We’ve got a role to play there.”
“The more automated and connected applications become, the more critical it is for customers to have a highly reliable, continuously available and operationally simple edge infrastructure to drive true IIoT business value,” said Dave Laurello, CEO of Stratus. “Plant operators, in particular, don’t want to adopt, implement and manage complicated edge technology that requires specific expertise or talent. The more self-managing the infrastructure, the more desirable it is, reducing the need for dedicated resources at each plant.”