4 essential edge-computing use cases

Placing processing power and storage at the edge of enterprise networks takes many forms but delivers faster response times and can reduce the need for WAN bandwidth.

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Local processing is critical for a few core store applications. Product information needs to be managed onsite, for example. The stores carry between 65,000 and 70,000 items, which are tracked in a database that's constantly being updated as suppliers make changes to their products. POS transactions depend on access to that data, which includes UPC codes, vendor numbers, product categories, and prices. "All of that has to reside local and be able to be looked at locally," Miller says.

Another critical on-site application is the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) system, which requires a link between the local POS app and state-run systems to verify the availability of funds. The EBT application runs on the HE150 infrastructure, which is clustered for high availability, and pings the state-run system to confirm the user’s benefits balance. If shoppers can't use EBT funds, they'll shop somewhere else, which can have a big impact on sales at busy Jerry's Foods locations. "If EBT goes down at the Lake Street store in Minneapolis, for example, in less than an hour we could be out $40,000," Miller says.

For the most part, the in-store workloads today aren't compute heavy or intelligence heavy, but that's due to change. For example, one of the retailer's stores was severely damaged during the riots in Minneapolis this summer. It's being rebuilt to include enhanced building-security systems that will put more of a load on local IT resources. At other locations, Jerry's Foods is considering installing solar rooftops as part of an effort to reduce energy costs, and, "If we do that, there will be a ton of intelligence around HVAC," Miller says.

With the edge appliances, Jerry's Foods can customize which applications run at each location. At sites with greater edge-processing requirements, Miller plans to deploy Scale Computing's larger HCI appliances. Right now, deciding which unit to use is dependent on how much video will need to be stored locally. "It's still edge to us, whether it's big edge or small edge," Miller says.

In the big picture, the Scale Computing appliances have slashed the time IT spends managing in-store infrastructure because there is less of it, and the rollout is expected to reduce the cost per instance by 50% over five years compared to the legacy virtualization system. "The nice thing about Scale, all of that [legacy infrastructure] is gone. We are 100% out of the VMware business," Miller says.

Gone, too, are a number of proprietary hardware devices. In the past, stores had to maintain dedicated hardware for specific applications, such as fuel rewards and the extra coupons that print with a receipt. "We had one-offs for all kinds of stuff," Miller says. "All of those different things were point solutions with different servers. We're pulling all of that back so we'll be able to slim down the actual hardware needs at the register and at the edge."

Jerry's Foods still has a few stores left to convert to the new edge-infrastructure model, which will be done by the spring of next year, Miller says. Looking ahead, he's considering tying cloud storage to the stores' edge-run applications. "We could use a small-scale device for those applications that have to be local – POS and antivirus and PCI defense – but we could push all of that storage need off to the cloud," Miller says. "I see that as the future."

Mining environment highlights IT/OT convergence

Engineers at Boliden are mining for copper, zinc, lead, gold and silver. But they're doing it from the comfort of an above-ground control room rather than from tunnels below the surface.

At the Boliden site in Garpenberg, Sweden, autonomous mining equipment operates in areas that could be unsafe to send people. Laden with dust and prone to water infiltration, toxic gasses, and vibration, it's an environment that's inhospitable to communications gear, too.

Automation has been transforming the mining industry for many years. Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology manufactured its first autonomous mining equipment as early as 2004. Today, the state-of-the-art is a fully autonomous fleet of equipment running in an underground mine. "The [onboard] computers are controlling the machines independently, without any human interaction needed," says Petri Mannonen, product line manager of mining information management at Sandvik, which provides gear and services for jobs including rock drilling, crushing and screening, loading and hauling, tunneling, and demolition.

The main driver of mining modernization is employee safety. "Underground mining is a hazardous environment. Getting people away from that hazardous environment increases the safety," Mannonen says.

Improving operational efficiency is another key target.

As mining technology has advanced, so too have the requirements for network connectivity – it's not just a laptop that's running underground, it's network-connected machinery that's critical to operations. As mines become smarter, mining companies are extending connectivity from small dedicated networks to mine-wide networks. With more pervasive connectivity, mining companies can use proximity detection to keep people, equipment and other resources safely distanced, for example. In an emergency, more reliable connectivity can help coordinate communications and response.

At Boliden's Garpenberg site, Sandvik supplies the mining equipment along with operational software, which depends on Cisco's industrial IoT networking technology – both wired and wireless – for connectivity. Sandvik's AutoMine software enables autonomous control of underground mining equipment as well as teleremote control so mining engineers in the control room can track resources and make adjustments as necessary. Boliden is also using Sandvik's OptiMine software, which collects data from the mining equipment and analyzes it to optimize production.

On the network side, Boliden operates a low-latency IoT network using Cisco industrial switches and access points. Keeping the network connected underground is imperative. "There really needs to be a robust and reliable communications network from the equipment both to the control room and to the safety solution to be able to ensure that the environment and machines are operating safely," Mannonen says.

That connectivity has helped transform mining operations in general, and Sandvik's business model in particular, says Dave Wilson, managing director of IoT global sales at Cisco.

"Now that we're able to provide networking in these harsh environments that these machines can connect to, [Sandvik] has been able to reimagine and evolve their business model," Wilson says. "They can make their vehicles smarter. They can have different pieces – tools and sensors and software – that enable them to turn their vehicle into one big sensor that analyzes what's going on. Then you can optimize the whole process."

The setup at the Garpenberg mine, a mile underground, allows mining engineers to track people and equipment assets in real time. Onboard sensors are used for navigational purposes as well as to track the equipment's health and make sure it's operating at optimal levels. Data collected from the mines also informs operational decisions; it can be used to streamline scheduling, for example.

It's transformative for mining operations. "That truck that's autonomous – it can go on, the ‘driver’ isn't going to be fatigued," Wilson says. "They can get accuracy down to the centimeters in these mines. They can go to places they wouldn't have been able to mine before."

Some calculations are done independently at the farthest edges of the mines. Equipment might be running in an area that doesn't have continuous network coverage, so the analysis can be done onboard.

More advanced analytics are done above ground. "Typically, the IoT-type of data collection from the equipment itself is either sent to the local central repository where the data is stored" or it can be sent for analysis in the cloud, Mannonen says.

As edge environments go, mining highlights the trend toward a convergence of IT systems and operational technology. Instead of digitizing the corporate branch and campus edge, "what we're doing now with these technologies is allowing the edge of the world and the businesses to digitize, which is really the heart of the business," says Wilson.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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