Accessing the benefits of edge computing – a must for industry 4.0

Until edge computing is as easy to set up and manage as a consumer device like a games console, it won’t be accessible to many of the industrial applications that it is most beneficial to.

That is the opinion put forward by Jason Andersen, the vice president, strategy and business line management at Stratus Technologies, who Information Age met when he visited the UK recently.

What does he mean by this?

As industry 4.0 emerges, control and management of connected technologies (IIoT) at the application layer (edge) enables industrial enterprises to take steps towards real-time and proactive management of applications, rather than the post-hoc reactive control environment of industry 3.0. With edge computing comes the capability for industrial applications to manage data where it is often most useful, when it is produced; it allows for analytics at the point of need, at a time and in a place where it can be actioned. It opens up new levels of control, efficiency and productivity for industry and real ROI for connected enterprises.

Analysing the increasing amount data, generated from a whole variety of sources, can produce insights that even the most seasoned experts would not have even dreamed of. “That’s what makes it so fascinating,” gleamed Andersen.

Once a business has an alignment on their goals, they then collect the data and use analytics to look at it. Getting data from the application edge is the sharpest of mining tools, so having edge computing opens a world of opportunity.

Computing at this level, however, means that a new, highly connected application edge environment is operating on the plant floor — at the Operational Technology (OT) level, as well as in the server room and cloud environments at the IT level.

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This blurring of the lines between OT and IT technologies is part and parcel of a convergence in technologies that is opening the possibilities of industry 4.0, but it is not without practical implications. As Andersen points out: “Today, it’s much harder to deploy and manage software at the edge than it is in a data centre or a cloud where the IT functionality — the security, servers, networking etc — already exist. To deploy at the edge requires work-arounds that involve, essentially, building a series of mini-data-centres with associated capabilities at the edge.”

This layer of IT infrastructure requirement needed at the edge will hold back its deployment unless it can be made much simpler to create, argues Andersen. If the OT engineers are deploying these mini-data centres all around the factory then how can the IT department keep up and maintain the levels of cyber security and networking capabilities to support them? The answer is that they can’t, says Andersen, except in the very best resourced applications, and at great cost.

This observation of real-world applications of edge computing drives the Stratus approach to its edge products and platforms. Having developed its first ruggedised edge server in 2018 to be strong enough to operate in harsh working environments and simple enough to be deployed by OT engineers, the company has further enabled the ztC Edge range with cyber security capabilities that offer IT functions peace-of-mind.

The gaming model

The aim is to create a consumer device experience (plug and play) rather than a business or an enterprise device experience. By delivering that experience, “the OT guys say ‘oh, this is great, I’ve installed it quickly, everything is set up, we didn’t need separate IT resources’” says Andersen. In fact, he continues, Stratus has built a new Edge computing solution with embedded security controls, so that OT can configure their own firewall and help mitigate the IT security and networking burden of that edge-level connectivity. According to Andersen, it is a significant step towards fulfilling the company’s strategy for edge computing, that of creating technology that is simple, secure and autonomous.

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From a reputation built on unprecedented levels of IT availability through their data centre hardware and software which has helped them to succeed in the industrial environment in recent years, Stratus is rapidly evolving into a leader in the edge computing space.

By offering continuous availability of their server platforms, Stratus customers can rely on the integrity and completeness of the data produced. This marks a key transition for industry — one that opens the door to digital transformation — and allows them to take the next steps towards more autonomous decision making. As Andersen explains, “with reliable data coming back from the edge environment, you get to the next level of analytics, then the insights and then full circle back to control. Ultimately, what businesses want is machines that drive themselves, that’s the AI part of it.

“It’s funny because everyone talks about analytics and AI, and it’s really not ‘and’, it’s ‘then’. It’s analytics then AI. This is what we’re excited about at Stratus, because those control devices are going to be pretty specialised and very much in our wheelhouse in terms of support and protection; and all those things that apply at the control centre.”

For Andersen then, industry is starting to seek control of the data that is being produced in the era of IIoT. And in seeking to control the data, to learn from it, industrial leaders are realising that keeping a good portion of it in the context and environment of the application itself is more useful. Analysing data in the edge environment naturally means that computing needs to happen there, and Stratus is offering this capability. Importantly, says Andersen, the company is also making all of this not just possible, but also practical. It is making it simple, helping industry to strive towards the autonomy they seek, but building in the security and networking functionality that reduces the IT implications of computing in the OT environment.

It’s the sort of strategic recipe that could well place Stratus at the heart of the edge for decades to come.

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Case study

We work with a chocolate company in Eastern Europe and they have decided to have a really granular control of each individual line. Before they started working with us, the company had one big server sitting in the factory watching everything. They realised that if they wanted to collect enough data to understand and manage these lines, they had to do it independently, at the application level. So they have to move from a server in the data centre to an edge server on each individual line, directly connected to the actual equipment.

Now they are collecting more data, they are able to get better analytics and they are able to control the system in a more granular way. They have decentralised away from one server in the data centre in order to achieve this.

Another case study is our work with machine builders, who are starting to deploy our solutions. The logic here is that as machine builders integrate the control platform into their units, it makes sense if they can also include the capability to manage data for analysis, both by the end user, and, potentially in order to continue after-sales machine servicing. One example of a machine builder including our ztC Edge 100i with their equipment makes very large stone cutting machines for stone counter-tops. The redundancy, simplicity and autonomy of the Stratus platform were key factors when embedded within their machines, which produce various types of high-quality, technologically advanced and decorative engineered stone finished products.

— Andersen.

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Nick Ismail

Nick Ismail is a former editor for Information Age (from 2018 to 2022) before moving on to become Global Head of Brand Journalism at HCLTech. He has a particular interest in smart technologies, AI and...