Implementing IoT: Are You on Edge, or in the Fog?

Just when I started to think I had a basic understanding of the Cloud, a new type of weather has come rolling in: the Fog. I was dismayed when I first encountered it—another computing paradigm to learn about, sigh. But as it turns out, if you know what the Cloud is, it’s a lot easier to “demistify” this new term in the Computing lexicon. And if you are an Electronics Manufacturing Services provider like REDCOM EMS, you may even get excited about it—explanation below.

I didn’t go looking for the Fog—it found me. I wanted to know more about the Internet of Things, because everybody is talking about IoT, and I hate it when I can’t chime in to a conversation with a clever comment. As most readers know, you can’t have IoT without the Cloud, because the Cloud is where the data that comes from all the “Things” is analyzed and converted to useful information. This is especially true for Industrial IoT (IIoT) where there may be thousands of sensors and actuators networked to hundreds of machines in a large factory. These sensors can generate terabytes of data per hour.

So you can see that a big problem arises in IIoT: there is too much data. Sending all this “big data” straight to the Cloud is expensive and even with todays’ high-bandwidth networks, too slow to enable fast-enough communication back to the factory, (for example, to shut down an overheated motor). The reliability of the connection to the Cloud is also a concern.

The obvious solution is to pre-process this data, then upload just a sampled-down or otherwise permuted subset of it to the Cloud. This pre-processing occurs on the factory floor, and is accomplished by IoT gateways, sensor hubs, and “intelligent endpoints” designed and programmed for specific tasks. While a gateway is so named because it translates machine communication protocols to internet-related protocols, gateways can also perform other functions, such as analyses of smaller data sets for immediate, locally-useful interpretation and action.

All this seems pretty clear, so you might wonder how Fog gets into it. These gateways, located near or at the edge of the network, are the “fog” layer between the sky (the Cloud) and the ground (the sensors and nodes hooked up to the machines and other processing equipment). “Fog” is just an extension of the cloud metaphor, the term being closely connected to implementing IoT. “Edge computing” is a synonymous term, and some prefer it for its clarity compared to “Fog”. That said, I think “Fog” will beat out “Edge” computing, if for no other reason than “Fog” having its’ own consortium.

The Fog is where the hardware is in the IoT. And there will be a lot of hardware. The opportunity for designers to innovate in Fog hardware is gigantic, and this innovation will manifest itself in many new Printed Circuit Board Assemblies (PCBAs) mounted in gateway chassis. Common to these new designs will be multiple I/O connectors, MCUs (microcontrollers) and full processors, and devices that do not lend themselves to highly automated assembly techniques. As more processing power comes onboard, thermal management will be of increasing importance.

And this is why I’m excited about the Fog: REDCOM EMS, having a history as an OEM of high-interoperability telecommunications hardware products, is on very familiar terms with the techniques and challenges related to manufacturing these kinds of PCBAs and chassis. Real estate is usually in short supply, and that’s why two-sided SMT is so important; we have Selective Soldering equipment, enabling us to efficiently produce these mixed-technology (SMT + through-hole) boards. We’ve designed and built boxes with extended operating temperature ranges, learning much about how to “keep cool”, be it with careful heat sink selection or simply making sure that connecting cables do not interfere with convection flows.

REDCOM EMS is very well-positioned to service the needs of customers who, like us, are pretty stoked about IoT/IIoT, and believe that the Fog is clearly a huge opportunity. Together we can deliver on the promise of IoT/IIoT.