Emerging technologies like predictive analytics, augmented reality and blockchain have the potential to transform supply-chain operations. Leading the charge for businesses in the digital age: edge computing.
At its simplest, edge computing is the processing and analyzing of data along a network edge, closest to the point of its collection. Combining this with distributed networks, which are at the very heart of how blockchain operates, allows for data to be processed faster, and the end-user experience improved.
Edge computing has emerged with the proliferation of internet of things (IoT) devices, at a time when existing network architecture is coping with a spike in the amount of data being produced, processed and distributed. Even with the advent of edge computing, and its ability to bring the workload closer to the consumer, networks cannot properly scale to accommodate much more.
In essence, edge computing distributes the power of a cloud data center among a number of mini data centers, which are run locally and in turn serve devices within their proximity. Consider the example of an oil rig at sea, making use of dozens of IoT sensors to collect operational data. In a cloud network, each of those devices would ordinarily “phone home” to a data center on the mainland, resulting in considerable delay and poor coverage. It would also result in the consumption of excessive bandwidth and computational power, due to the transfer of superfluous information.
It makes far more sense for the rig to run its own node, capable of collecting, storing and processing data, before sending relevant information back to the main data center. That way, the sensors are always connected to the rig’s server with low latency, and aren’t subject to downtime or congestion afflicting the rest of the network.
In this manner, edge computing greatly enhances the scalability of current infrastructure. One could envision a near future wherein every business or organization runs its own compact data center, massively reducing the strain on the main data centers, and neutralizing the threat of a single point of failure.
The marriage of supply chains and blockchains has long been a goal of many innovators. The ability to track the movement of goods through a distributed ledger would circumvent many vulnerabilities seen in supply chains today.
Before edge computing can be properly implemented, though, another issue needs to be addressed: the tethering of components in the physical world (IoT devices such as GPS trackers, for instance) to a blockchain. Generally speaking, this entails a smart contract calling on an off-chain oracle, which feeds data from IoT devices into the blockchain.
To maintain the integrity of the supply chain and its blockchain, it’s critical that the oracle, serving as a bridge between the two, is always online with as little latency as possible. Given the probability that at some point a container equipped with sensors will pass through an area with little to no connectivity, alternative networks must be leveraged. By connecting to an edge server, that data can still reach the oracle and update the ledger accordingly.
Edge computing is vital to the scaling of existing networks. It ensures that applications can continue to employ them, via devices that boost performance. As new technologies go, it could be turn out to be one of the most important developments in the coming years, turbocharging the potential of data systems across a myriad of sectors.
Neeraj Murarka is co-founder and chief technology officer of Bluzelle Networks, a global data cache based on edge computing.