Emerging from the cloud to the fog to strengthen the Internet of Things

Distinguished Tenured Staff, Faculty, Author, Speaker

The simplest definition of the Internet of Things (IoT) is the convergence of people, things, data and processes connecting life and business and everything in between. The IoT is a drastic transformation of how the world interacts at all levels. Moreover, it is emerging as the third wave in the development of the Internet. The Internet wave of the 1990s connected 1 billion users, and the mobile wave of the 2000s connected another 2 billion. But the IoT has the potential to connect as many 50 billion “things” to the Internet by 2020, ranging from bracelets to cars to houses. In a nutshell, IoT is poised to interconnect devices, people, environments, virtual objects and machines in ways that until now have existed only in science fiction.

The terms “fog computing” or “edge computing” describe systems and devices that operate on network ends instead of in the network center. This allows data to be processed locally, in smart devices, rather than being sent to the cloud (or center) for processing.

Fog computing, like many IT trends and advancements, grew out of the need to address certain major concerns:

  • The need for real-time processing of incoming data
  • Limitations on available bandwidth

Fog computing is defined by specific characteristics that make it a suitable platform for the IoT, including low latency and location awareness, widespread geographical distribution, mobility, its very large number of nodes, the predominant role of wireless access, the strong presence of streaming and real-time applications, and heterogeneity.

Today’s sensors generate exabytes of data, but that’s too much data to send to the cloud using the limited bandwidth available, let alone considering the expenses of doing so. Fog computing places some transactions and resources at the edge of the cloud rather than establishing channels for cloud storage, processing and use. In so doing, it reduces the need for bandwidth by not sending every bit of information to the cloud, instead aggregating and processing data at certain access points. Using such a distributed strategy can lower costs and optimize resources. Check out IBM’s IoT Foundation for a look at how this can be done.

IoT, cloud and fog computing in action

How does this all work in the real world? Technology writer Alexander Slagg gives an excellent example:

A traffic light system in Chicago is equipped with smart sensors. It is Tuesday morning, the day of the big parade after the Chicago Cubs’ first World Series championship in more than 100 years. A surge of traffic into the city is expected as revelers come to celebrate their team’s win. As the traffic builds, data are collected from individual traffic lights.

The open-source application developed by the city to adjust light patterns and timing is running on each edge device. The app automatically makes adjustments to light patterns in real time, at the edge, working around traffic impediments as they arise and diminish. Traffic delays are kept to a minimum, and fans spend less time in their cars and have more time to enjoy their big day.

In the traffic light example, there is little value in sending a steady stream of everyday traffic sensor data to the cloud for storage and analysis. The civil engineers have a good handle on normal traffic patterns. The relevant data is sensor information that diverges from the norm, such as the data from parade day. That data would be sent up to the cloud and analyzed, supporting predictive analysis and allowing the city to adjust and improve its traffic application’s response to future traffic anomalies.

Fog, cloud and IoT together

IoT promises to bring the benefits of cloud computing to every home, vehicle and workplace having smart, Internet-connected devices. But as dependency on newly connected devices increases along with the benefits and uses of a maturing technology, the reliability of the gateways that make the IoT a reality must increase to guarantee uptime.

Use of smart edge gateways would strengthen the entire IoT infrastructure by absorbing the burden of processing work before passing it to the cloud. This would allow fog computing to meet requirements for reliable low-latency responses and allow it to deal with high traffic volume by using smart filtering and selective transmission. In this way, smart edge gateways could either handle or intelligently redirect the millions of tasks coming from the numerous sensors and monitors of the IoT, transmitting only summary and exception data to the cloud as needed.

The success of fog computing depends directly on the resilience of such smart gateways and how effectively they can direct countless tasks on an Internet teeming with IoT devices. Speed of deployment, cost-effective scalability and ease of management with limited resources are also major concerns.

Many once thought cloud computing the zenith of infrastructure designs for the foreseeable future, but we know that’s far from the case. Today, we are dealing with billions of devices and instant communication, and current cloud models won’t be able to handle the load. Advances in mobile processing power and wireless bandwidth have allowed the design of a far more capable architecture that can help us smoothly and intelligently emerge from the clouds to the fog.