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Are containerized edge applications your new IoT platform?

IoT as a term and technology has existed for decades and the use of an IoT Platform is consequently widely spread. It has been widely deployed in the medical, transportation, home automation, and manufacturing sectors. If we simplify a bit, a general architecture for IoT looks like below:

IoT Platform
  • Sensors: Could be cameras, LiDARs, temperature sensors, magnetic field sensors, etc.
  • Sensor connectivity: A large range of options from wireless, to wired.
  • IoT Gateway: Is what provides local processing of the data, AI inference, and caching of data in case of network issues.
  • Internet connectivity: Provides the connection from the sensors to a cloud analytics platform.
  • Cloud: As there is central analytics and management of the platform.

This has led to a category of systems called ”IoT platforms” and historically, you bought a platform covering the features needed for the layers above. These platforms provided proprietary solutions across the components. The IoT gateway were, in many cases, embedded in real-time OSes meaning that the applications for the IoT Gateway required special skills in that specific OS. And those applications were, in many cases, bundled with OS updates. The cloud part of things provided vendor-specific analytics tools and dashboards.

Challenges of an IoT Platform

Using an IoT Platform lead to the following challenges:

  • Hard to find competence in the specific technology.
  • Low feature agility: embedded technologies do not easily allow for agile application updates.
  • Sensor-centric rather than application-centric: Gateways are normally focused on data collection and forwarding rather than local intelligence.

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What is not shown in the IoT illustration above is the scale — sensors, and gateways are typically thousands. So challenges like operations, software updates, and security are scaling along with the size of the environement.

There are several technology shifts that can transform IoT development and deployment into modern agile application development.

  • Availability and reduced pricing of sensors. The sensor technology has advanced and previously expensive sensors like LiDAR devices are now affordable as standard components ► The sensor layer has become an open technology market with lots of options
  • Availability of general-purpose data analytics and dashboard tools such as Grafana etc. ► This replaces the proprietary cloud analytics layer
  • Edge computing replaces the IoT Gateway: this will be the focus of the rest of this article.

Entering: edge computing

With modern Edge computing technology, you may not need an IoT-specific gateway. The requirements for an IoT gateway mimic what is required for a modern edge compute node.

What is an edge compute node in 2023?

  • Linux: Linux distributions can run on really small nodes up to industrial rugged servers. No need for a dedicated embedded OS
  • Containers: applications that run at the edge are deployed as containers on the edge node. They can be easily deployed with frequent updates. Container applications are also decoupled from the OS layer in contrast with proprietary embedded OS solutions where OS and applications are bundled.
  • Device/sensor management: Linux has built-in functionality to detect and mount devices/sensors that are connected and a rich set of drivers. (See udev for example).
  • GPU management: inference and analytics are to a higher degree localized at the edge of modern IoT. GPUs are available on compute platforms that can run at the edge. This reduces the need to send data to the cloud and GPU cloud processing costs.
  • Local telemetry bus: the gateway needs to process data from the sensors. Data need to be filtered, enriched, and aggregated at the site. Therefore, the edge compute node must have an efficient way of handling the data from the sensors and making it available for edge applications. The bus must have a built-in cache for network outages towards the cloud.

IoT Platform vs Edge Applications

What are the benefits of the above?

  • Application agility: With Linux and containers, you can utilize your existing CI/CD pipeline for developing IoT applications at your edge. Your developers can use their existing skills for programming languages and OS. Applications can be deployed as containers to your edge node frequently rather than flashing a new image, giving you much higher agility.
  • Reduced cost: Linux and container platforms are mainstream technologies with a different price tag than IoT-specific platforms.
  • Standardized solution: containers are a well-established standard. You will have no vendor lock-in.
  • Application-centric rather than sensor-centric: since you can easily deploy intelligent applications to your edges, they can turn into intelligent nodes rather than just sensor data forwarding to the cloud. You will have a faster response time close to the source, fewer issues with data privacy, and fewer cloud and networking costs.
  • Aligns with Edge AI architectures: trained models/inference engines are deployed as containers on your edge node.

Keep Reading: What is Edge AI and why should you use it

And not to forget, the modern edge comes with a central edge orchestration solution to efficiently address the scale challenges.

In summary, you should look into distributed edge compute platforms for your IoT solutions going forward. It will enable more distributed intelligence, more agile development and at a lower cost.


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