Fog Computing Is The Next Big Innovation Within The IoT

Fog computing is the infrastructure that could underpin some major developments

5Jan

It is not big news to say that the IoT is going to be a genuine game changer in society. It is the key element to some of the most important world-changing technologies that we will see over the next decade, from self-driving cars through to smart cities and P2P networks, but with the current infrastructure used for the vast majority of IoT devices, these kinds of uses are not always possible.

Most IoT devices currently require a direct connection to the cloud which, because of the necessity of an internet connection, means low latency and slow speeds. For instance, if I want to tell my voice assistant to turn my lights on, it needs to send the request to the cloud where it is processed before sending the command from the cloud back to the lightbulb to turn itself on. When you are doing something as simple as turning a light off or on within a house that has a wireless signal from a private wifi network, this isn't too much of an issue, but when this needs to deal with many sensors in a less hospitable environment, it becomes infinitely more complex.

This is where fog computing comes in, allowing sensors and devices to be connected to store and process data whilst not requiring a direct connection to the cloud. It essentially sits slightly above the devices but below the cloud, hence the name - a localized cloud that sits just above the ground.

To many this will not seem like much of a breakthrough as it is essentially just a local server, but when you consider that some predict that there will be 21 billion connected devices by 2020, this suddenly becomes a considerably more important technological development. When we look at something like smart cities, where there could be thousands of devices on a street which all need to upload to a cloud, the speed and security of that data transfer is clearly an issue. The kind of connection needed to simultaneously upload, process, store, and command in real-time from the cloud for these thousands of devices is available today. However, if each street has thousands of devices, and if there are thousands of streets, suddenly the connections needed grow exponentially and the speed of this data transfer is considerably slower than it needs to be to be effective. Through utilizing a fog computing system, the direct connection for each device to the cloud is no longer necessary, saving significant bandwidth and allowing for far superior real-time data analysis and command.

In an attempt to fully realize the potential of the technology, a number of forward-thinking companies in 2015 banded together to create the OpenFog Consortium. The calibre of the companies involved shows the potential that the technology has, with Cisco, Intel, Microsoft, arm, and Dell all founding members, and GE, Foxconn, and Hitachi amongst the contributing members. In February 2016 they published the white paper OpenFog Reference Architecture, which outlined the eight pillars of an OpenFog architecture, which are Security, Scalability, Open, Autonomy, Programmability, RAS (Reliability, Availability, and Serviceability), Agility, and Hierarchy.

One example of how fog computing could impact the world is in energy usage in local areas. Shaun Varga & Ross Laurie wrote 'The Energy Fog. How electric vehicles, blockchain, and fog computing will re-power the planet' for the OpenFog Consortium in June 2017 that discussed how fog computing will be a key enabler to P2P energy transactions.

The paper discusses how we currently have a spoke and hub system with the national grid, even in situations where people are creating their own excess energy through renewable sources. It means that if I were to create excess electricity from my solar panels, rather than being able to share that power directly with my neighbor, it needs to be sent back to the grid, then to my neighbor. This is an antiquated system because ultimately there is no reason for national grid to be involved, according to Varga and Laurie 'We believe there is no alternative but to move away from a hub & spoke format, to a fully connected network topology.' This involves a relatively complex process of P2P transactions within a local area, with these transfers logged on the blockchain and managed by a local fog computing system. It also wastes a huge amount of energy, with an average of 8% lost in this process according to ABB.

This isn't simply a nice idea either, it is something that is increasingly necessary in today's energy infrastructure where more people are producing their own energy. According to the OpenFog Consortium energy paper, California generated 67.2% of it's energy from renewable sources in April 2017, but a huge amount of this was wasted because it could be not be stored and the national grid couldn't redistribute it. With a shared system, this would no longer be an issue as local communities could simply use the energy they produce themselves and have it all controlled through a localized fog computing system. However, the paper also argues that this system will not replace the grid, but will instead work alongside it, with the fog allowing for this kind of mid-level control which can help dictate where energy can be drawn from or distributed to without needing the complexity of uploading everything to the cloud in real-time. One of the most important elements of this systems is that it allows for the exchange to take place via blockchain, with the ledger being held in this fog system and uploaded to the cloud only when necessary, saving significant bandwidth and allowing the transfer to happen considerably faster.

Energy use is just one of the huge number of examples where fog computing can have an impact, with another report by the consortium 'Size and Impact of Fog Computing Market' finding that the largest worldwide potential markets were energy/utilities, transportation, healthcare, and industrial markets. The same report predicted that the market opportunity could top $18 billion by 2022. However, there are still several hurdles to overcome, chief amongst them according to the report is that 'The market also requires business models and a liability structure that allow manufacturers of endpoints (cargo ships, fitness trackers, portable endoscopes) to ‘sandbox’ Fog node capability within their environments without potentially impairing device functionality or incurring liability'. 2018 is the time when companies will be putting these elements into place and we will hopefully see these come to fruition in the future.

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