Edge computing is the place to address a host of IoT security concerns

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Edge computing can greatly improve the efficiency of gathering, processing and analyzing data gathered by arrays of IoT devices, but it’s also an essential place to inject security between these inherently vulnerable devices and the rest of the corporate network.

First designed for the industrial IoT (IIoT), edge computing refers places placing an edge router or gateway locally with a group of IIoT endpoints, such as an arrangement of connected valves, actuators and other equipment on a factory floor.

Because the lifespan of industrial equipment is frequently measured in decades, the connectivity features of those endpoints either date back to their first installation or they’ve been grafted on after the fact. In either case, the ability of those endpoints to secure themselves is seriously limited, since they’re probably not particularly powerful computing devices. Encryption is hard to cram into a system-on-a-chip designed to open and close a valve and relay status back to a central control pane.

IIoT can be a security blind spot

As a result, IIoT is a rich new target opportunity for malicious hackers, thanks in large part to the difficulty of organizing and gaining visibility into what’s happening on an IIoT, according to Eddie Habibi, CEO of PAS Global, an industrial cybersecurity company who has been working in the industrial control and automation for about 15 years.

A lot of connected IIoT devices have known, exploitable vulnerabilities, but operators might not have the ability to know for certain what systems they have on their networks. “The hardest thing about these older systems that have been connected over the past 25 years is that you can’t easily do discovery on them,” he said. Operators don’t know all the devices they have, so they don’t know what vulnerabilities to patch.

It’ll be decades, Habibi said, before many IIoT users – whose core devices can date back to the 1980s and even the 1970s – update this important hardware.

Edge networks provide security

That’s where the edge comes in, say the experts. Placing a gateway between the industrial endpoints and the rest of a company’s computing resources lets businesses implement current security and visibility technology without ripping and replacing expensive and IIoT machinery.

The edge model also helps IIoT implementations in an operational sense, by providing a lower-latency management option than would otherwise be possible if those IIoT endpoints were calling back to a cloud or a data center for instructions and to process data.

Most of the technical tools used to secure an IoT network in an edge configuration are similar to those in use on IT networks – encryption, network segmentation, and the like. Edge networking creates a space to locate security technologies that limited-capacity endpoints can’t handle on their own.

Mike Mackey is CTO and vice president of engineering at Atonomi, makers of a blockchain-based identity and reputation-tracking framework for IIoT security. He said edge computing adds an important layer of trust between a company’s backend and its potentially vulnerable IIoT devices.

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